Wing secures first FAA certification for drone deliveries

Alphabet’s drone delivery service has been cleared by the US Federal Aviation Administration to become an airline, the first important step in allowing it to start operating on a commercial basis.

Subsidiary Wing Aviation – which now has the same certifications needed by traditional charter airlines or smaller freight operators – plans to begin routine deliveries of consumer items in two rural communities in Virginia within months.

This will help pave the way to eventually conduct the kind of advanced operations necessary to allow a drone delivery business to fly beyond the pilot’s visual line of sight and over people.

The FAA said the company had met the agency’s safety requirements by participating in a pilot programme in Virginia with the Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership (MAAP) and Virginia Tech and by conducting thousands of flights in Australia over recent years.

“This is an important step forward for the safe testing and integration of drones into our economy,” US transportation secretary Elaine Chao said in a statement.

Wing chief executive James Ryan Burgess called FAA approval ‘pivotal’ both for his company and the drone industry in general.

The approvals signed by the FAA on April 19 now give the company the ability to charge for deliveries in Virginia and apply for permission to expand to other regions.

Mark Blanks, director of the Virginia Tech Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership, said: “Commercial delivery is one of the most significant ways that the public is going to interact with drone technology on a routine basis. But until now there hasn’t been a clear pathway for traditional aviation regulations, which were designed for manned aircraft, to accommodate it.

“That’s why this certificate is so significant: it’s a testament to Wing’s meticulous work and unwavering focus on safety, but it’s also a milestone for the industry because it demonstrates that there’s a way to do drone delivery under the current regulatory structure.”

With the air carrier certification from the FAA in hand, Blanks said Wing and MAAP can begin planning for commercial deliveries under the Integration Pilot Program. A critical piece of this planning will be outreach to local communities, talking with residents and businesses about what goods-by-drone would actually mean.

The FAA certification was needed because existing rules created strictly for drones don’t allow the kind of flights Wing envisioned. According to regulations issued in 2016, drone operators are allowed to fly for hire, but have to do so within strict rules prohibiting flights outside of a ground operator’s eyesight. Similarly, the FAA has allowed automated flights over longer distances, but these have only been demonstrations and companies can’t accept payment. In order for Wing to operate over longer ranges and actually charge for the service, it had to become a full-fledged air carrier.

Other drone companies applying for FAA approvals should be able to move more quickly now that the agency and Wing have worked through the issues of what rules should apply to drone operators.

“When Virginia won a spot in the IPP programme, we knew that it was a pivotal moment in the state’s strong history of UAS innovation,” said Ed Albrigo, the chief executive of Virginia’s Center for Innovative Technology, which led the application. “This is a landmark achievement for Wing; we’re tremendously proud to be part of the team, and that we’ve created an environment in Virginia that could help advance commercial drone integration in the United States.”