WISE — The 2015 "Kitty Hawk Moment" commemorated at Lonesome Pine Airport Thursday came with other important economic development announcements and one proposal — of marriage — that nearly eclipsed the unveiling of the sign marking the first FAA-approved unmanned aircraft system delivery in the United States.
Australia native Matthew Sweeny, chief executive officer of the company whose drone took to the sky on July 17, 2015, to deliver medications to the Remote Area Medical outreach that year, delighted the crowd when he dropped to his knee and proposed to Wise native Andi Kilgore, whom he had met here while planning for the historic event.
Kilgore's voice had been strong when she opened the event singing the national anthem and played host with speaker and guest introductions, but was reduced to a quiver after accepting Sweeny's proposal, then inviting dignitaries forward for the unveiling.
U.S. Sen. Mark Warner had invited Sweeny to the podium for the surprise proposal after commending the 2015 delivery that took place here in Wise County, he noted, not Northern Virginia, Richmond or even at Langley.
"It goes to the entrepreneurship feeling, the resilience, and the just plain grit and determination that so embodies, that so represents all of you in Southwest Virginia," Warner said.
The historic drone delivery is an example of Southwest Virginia's ingenuity and stick-to-it nature to get things done, Warner said.
As did others, Warner recognized the work of Coeburn native and technology and space enthusiast Jack Kennedy, whom he described as relentless and always forward-looking. Warner said Kennedy was always looking to see around that next corner for Virginia and the country.
The senator spoke to the incredible opportunities presented by drones, unmanned aerial systems.
Back in the early 1980s, he was lucky enough to fall into a brand new industry called cell phones, Warner recalled, which brought a revolution to technology and to communications.
"I would make the case that, as cell phones were to the '80s and '90s, unmanned aerial systems, drones, can be to the 2020s and 2030s," he said.
Warner said he believes history will look back at the drone delivery here the same as the Kitty Hawk Moment. "It's one of those moments where we flipped the switch," he said.
"Let's not just make the first flights here," Warner also said, "let's make sure we build the next generation drones right here in Southwest Virginia as well."
The Flirtey drone used in that flight is headed for the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. It will be placed next to the Wright Brothers' Wright Flyer, Sweeny said Thursday, which flew four times in 1903 near Kitty Hawk, N.C.
Sweeny said Flirtey believes they are less than 14 months away from receiving approval to scale drone delivery across the country. "We're excited about what the future is bringing," he said.
Sweeny would recall how he got the idea after graduating from college in Sydney and studying in China, when the precursors to today's drones, model helicopters, first went on sale.
He started building the first delivery drone in his college dorm room in China, went back to Australia, and needed to test the concept.
On a Monday, he recalled, they announced they were starting the first drone delivery company and woke up the next morning to find themselves on the front page of CNN and Fox News.
On Wednesday, "some of the largest companies in the world had reached out to us," he continued, and "on Thursday, I started packing my bags to move to America."
He moved to the Silicon Valley in 2014 and started looking for locations where they could get fast-track regulatory approval. But with no regulatory structure in place, he said, it seemed like an impossibility.
"But then we met Jack Kennedy," he said, "like the man behind the curtain who makes things happen but doesn't like to get the credit."
Sweeny thanked Kennedy, the Wise County community for its support and Flirtey investors, some of whom were there for the unveiling of the historic marker, provided by the Virginia Department of Aviation.
Andi Kilgore, an aspiring singer, moved to Nevada and has helped Sweeny run Flirtey as his chief of staff and his partner, Sweeny told the crowd.
Virginia Second District Del. Terry Kilgore read from a joint House resolution acknowledging the historic flight, what it meant and all those involved in making it possible. The resolution notes how the drone delivery here demonstrated it as a powerful humanitarian tool. It also showed the power of collaboration among the various groups to further the common good, the resolution said.
The Flirtey drone flew medications from the airport to the Wise County fairgrounds for the Remote Area Medical and Health Wagon annual health care outreach. An advanced unmanned SR-22 single engine drone brought the medications to the airport from the pharmacy in Buchanan County.
The lead-up to the marker presentation included announcements about new agreements forged with Old Dominion University's Institute for Innovation & Entrepreneurship with the Carbon Research Center Development Co. in Wise and the Wise County Industrial Development Authority.
CRCD's goal is to become the “graphene hub” of the country, Dr. Steve Hooper, the company's chief executive officer, said in an announcement early last week. The graphene research center team has developed an innovative and cost-effective way to produce graphene from renewable resources, Hooper said, calling their approach “the Holy Grail.”
On Thursday, Hooper described graphene as very thin and the strongest material known to man. He called it the material of the future, like plastic was a generation or two ago.
Steve Goad from ODU's Institute for Innovation & Entrepreneurship said their goal was to help Wise County and businesses like the CRCD "find solutions, turn them into reality, rapidly scale and get them to the market so it creates jobs and money."