Forget mail drops. In an effort to relieve trail town and post office congestion, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy and Google Express have launched a new resupply initiative using cargo drones called Air-Drops, so that thru-hikers can resupply on the Appalachian Trail without having to come into towns. The new Google Express service will deliver food and supplies via airborne cargo drones to hikers at any Appalachian Trail Shelter. The Air-Drop Resupply Service is being used by two dozen Appalachian Trail Thru-Hikers this year, with full roll out expected on the AT, as well as the Continental Divide Trail and Pacific Crest Trail next year.
“We’ve seen a huge increase in the number of hikers on the Appalachian Trail this year,” explains Ron Tipton, Executive Director of the ATC, “and trail towns along the route have expressed concern about being overrun with hikers and not having enough supplies on hand to support them. These towns depend on thru-hiker commerce, so we approached Google Labs to see if they could help relieve congestion in towns while helping small businesses hold on to the business that hikers provide.
“Thru-hikers come to trail towns in droves to pick up resupply packages at post offices or buy supplies in stores as they hike and stretch town resources to a breaking point” says David Voss, of the Google Labs “Project Wing” Research Team. “The new Google Express Air-Drop Service lets hikers buy goods from trail town stores and have them delivered on the trail, removing the need to come to town.”
Google set up online store fronts in a special Appalachian Trail marketplace for these small town stores, where hikers can select and schedule air-drops much like they did with post office mail drops, but without having to pack up resupply packages or mail them in advance. “It’s a huge benefit for our local town partners,” says Royce Gibson, the ATC Director of Development, “because they can drop-ship goods to hikers without ever having to handle the inventory and operate in a virtual 24 x 7 mode without needing to hire more staff. They weren’t hard to convince about signing up for the program and have been valuable partners in helping to define its development.”
When a hiker reaches a shelter, they send a text message to the Air-Drop service and a drone arrives within an hour with their resupply package. The Volkswagen-sized cargo containers used by the Air-Drop service are segmented into different compartments that can only be opened using a password sent to the hiker who ordered the goods, allowing multiple hikers to be resupplied on each trip.
“One of our goals with the Air-Drop service was to make sure the Air-Drop service didn’t increase littering on the trail since hikers like to repackage the food they buy and leave behind unnecessary packaging weight,” says the ATC’s Director of Conservation, Laura Belleville. “Working with Leave No Trace, Google Express built a special compartment into each drone cargo container code-named “The Dumpster” that can be used by hikers, including hikers who don’t use the service, to fly trash out from the trail.”
“Google Express is also working with the Pacific Crest Trail Association and the Continental Divide Trail Coalition on related trail projects, under the umbrella Triple Crown Drone Program, which includes the Google Express Air-Drop service trial on the Appalachian Trail,” said Google Drone Project Leader Voss “including trials involving water cache management, trail maintenance reconnaissance, fire suppression, and search and rescue.”
We’re fully supportive of these Drone Delivery projects, says FAA Administrator Michael Huerta, “because we think the earliest practical use of drone delivery systems will be in backcountry areas that are difficult to reach by conventional means.”
But will drone delivery systems, like Google Express’ Air-Drop Service intrude on the Wilderness Experience that Triple Crown hikers seek when they hike the Appalachian Trail, the Pacific Crest Trail, and the Continental Divide Trail? “Drone technologies are advancing as such a rapid rate that it’s hard to anticipate what impact they’ll have on wilderness areas,” says Dr Marion Jeffries, author of Leave No Trace in the Outdoors, “but we can’t hide our heads in the sand and pretend they don’t exist. Jets fly over our wilderness areas today and I expect drones will eventually too.”