The first government-approved drone delivery took flight on Friday, in which an unmanned aerial vehicle successfully dropped medical supplies to a health clinic in rural southwest Virginia.
Several hundred people including Gov. Terry McAuliffe came to the fairgrounds in the coal-mining region of Wise County, Virginia, to see the delivery, county officials told NBC News.
The drone operator, startup Flirtey -- which already conducts deliveries-by-drone in New Zealand, where laws allow the practice -- called it a "Kitty Hawk moment" in a Twitter post on Friday. It was the first drone delivery approved by the Federal Aviation Administration.
A NASA plane delivered the medicine to a Wise County regional airport and a Flirtey-operated drone took 24 packages the rest of the way -- to a Remote Area Medical pop-up clinic that offers medical care to area residents one weekend per year at the county fairgrounds.
Patients in Wise County sorely needed the packages of medicine and supplies, said Jack Kennedy, who spearheaded the partnership with Flirtey. The medicine is typically delivered by car, Kennedy said, over a bumpy 90-minute journey from a supplying pharmacy.
But for Kennedy, a seventh-generation Wise County resident who is also the Clerk of the 30th Judicial Court of Virginia, the drone delivery is the answer to the coal-dependent region's dire economic situation.
"The transition away from fossil fuels, namely coal, is causing a tremendous hardship for the region," Kennedy said. "The poverty rate is above 25 percent. Layoffs are announced almost on a weekly basis. Storefronts close all the times. We are in distress."
Kennedy dreams of turning Wise County into the central hub for American drone "training, application development and manufacturing," he told NBC News. As the FAA continues to develop legislation governing drones, Kennedy sees an opportunity for Wise to set itself apart before the drone industry is fully formed.
"I’m convincing my friends and neighbors and anyone who will listen to my evangelical message locally that this is something that can exponentially grow over time," Kennedy said. "This is as much of an opportunity as the Internet when it first started. We can be there early."
David Cox, financial administrator for Wise County, agreed the region needs to develop a new way to survive.
"We had several hundred people turn out today, and there was a lot of excitement -- local and state officials, college students. People know we need this," Cox said. "I'm from the area, and I can tell you we need the diversification. Drones can do that for us."