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Drone parts from MacDill land at NYC college student's doorstep

The box landed at the New York college student's front door looking like any other parcel shipped across the country, the kind that might contain cookies from Mom or a gift from Aunt Mabel.

The UPS label was addressed to him, but inside the box were wings and a control panel, along with a card that said the items were federal property and should be returned to a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration office at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa.

The engineering student, who on the Internet news aggregator Reddit uses the screen name of Seventy_Seven, posted his reaction there: "I think I just got a drone in the mail."

Others on the Reddit thread agreed that's what it looked like. "This is part of a money-saving change to the drone program," one joked. "They found out it's cheaper to mail them to the target than have the drone fly there."

The box did indeed contain parts of a drone — but not the kind used to launch aerial strikes in Afghanistan. Last week, NOAA officials in Florida packed up one of their unmanned aerial cameras, known as PUMA, in eight boxes to send to a marine sanctuary in Massachusetts, NOAA spokesman David P. Miller said in an e-mail to the Tampa Bay Times.

The $350,000 PUMA drones are electric-powered planes that weigh 13 pounds, with a 4-foot fuselage and a 9-foot wingspan. The camera on board sends back full-motion video as well as infrared images, with telemetry readings to show where the images came from.

The staff at the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary near Cape Cod wanted to use the PUMA as part of ongoing research on using drones to monitor offshore wildlife such as whales and sea turtles, Stellwagen superintendent Craig MacDonald said.

Seven boxes arrived there safely — but one landed in New York on Monday.

"UPS delivered one of the eight boxes to the wrong address," Miller said. "We were in touch with the person that received the package and UPS … Last night we were advised that UPS has that box in their possession and it is on its way to the sanctuary office in Massachusetts."

The student had ordered a weightlifting bench, and UPS delivered that package — along with the box of drone parts.

"Both boxes had UPS labels with my name and address," the student wrote. "Though an odd box, I genuinely thought it was parts for the bench I ordered, since I wasn't expecting a freaking drone."

Seventy_Seven said he'd tried to alert UPS to the error, but a supervisor "insisted that it was mine, and said that it was up to me if I want to keep it or not."

The student called the number on the card for the NOAA office at MacDill but failed to reach any one. Then a publication called Motherboard wrote about Seventy_Seven's Reddit thread, and the reporter connected the student with NOAA officials who were eager to get their drone parts back.

Apparently a label was dislodged from one package and wound up stuck somewhere else, but how that happened is a mystery, said UPS spokeswoman Susan Rosenberg.

"With 17 million packages a year," she said, "it's possible there will be some mistakes in there."

Video: How NOAA uses its Puma drones

Drone parts from MacDill land at NYC college student's doorstep 05/07/14 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 7, 2014 9:41pm]
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