Matternet and Skydio Both Recently Got Different Type Certifications—But What Is It, and Why Does It Matter?

BY Zacc Dukowitz
21 September 2022

The FAA recently announced that Matternet has received the first ever FAA type certification for its M2 delivery drone.

The Matternet M2 | Credit: Matternet

A lot has been made of this news, both by the FAA and by the drone industry in general.

But what is type certification?

The “type” in “type certification” refers to the specific drone model—Matternet’s M2, in this case. The certificate means that the drone’s design, construction, operation, and maintenance have all been rigorously vetted by the FAA, and that all of the drones it makes will now be considered compliant with the FAA’s airworthiness requirements.

Without type certification, the FAA could hypothetically require a drone manufacturer to submit any, or even all, of its drone models to individual testing and approval, since the manufacturer hasn’t yet demonstrated its ability to meet FAA regulations.

Crewed aircraft and aircraft components have to go through rigorous testing to get type certification.

The FAA has said that not all types of drones will need to be type certified, though drones used for regular commercial work, like drone delivery, will definitely need to get certified.

Currently, drones sit in a kind of limbo when it comes to achieving a similarly standardized level of recognized airworthiness. And Matternet achieving type certification is the first step toward iterating out standards for airworthiness within the drone industry.

How Type Certification Works

The requirements for crewed aircraft used to be prescriptive, meaning a manufacturer had to meet a specific set of requirements regardless of the details of their manufacturing process or how they planned to use their aircraft—whether it was a crop duster or a huge passenger jet, the same rules applied.

Over time, the FAA realized that this didn’t make sense, and shifted to evaluating manufacturers based on performance.

In the past, it made sense . . . to be quite specific about what you need to do to build the airplane. Technology has come a long way, and the pace of innovation has [increased] at exponential rates . . . And so that’s why we’ve adopted risk-based decision-making . . . and that is why we are evolving much more broadly to performance-based regulations.

– Former FAA Administrator Huerta

What this means for the drone industry is that drones are also evaluated for type certification based on how they perform, and not made to follow a pre-established set of rules.

The five phases the FAA requires for a drone manufacturer to get type certification are:

  • Conceptual design
  • Requirements definition
  • Compliance planning
  • Implementation
  • Post-certification activities

Credit: Matternet

Why Does Type Certification Matter?

For drone delivery companies, type certification matters because it can be helpful in attaining a Part 135 certification—that is, getting permission to operate as a small airline for the purposes of drone delivery.

Type Certification will allow Matternet to scale drone delivery operations in the US and gives the company a strong competitive advantage

Matternet statement

According to the FAA, the Part 135 certificate is “the only path for small drones to carry the property of another for compensation beyond visual line of sight.”

A Part 135 can also be helpful for other commercial drone activities, including agriculture, surveillance, and for-hire shipping of goods.

But getting one requires fairly deep pockets. At the moment, only Wing, UPS Flight Forward, Amazon Prime, and Zipline have a Part 135.

It should be noted that type certification is not required for getting a Part 135—clearly, since none of the companies we just listed have one yet, although they all have Part 135s.

That being said, all four of those companies are currently pursuing their own type certifications for their delivery drones, and will probably get them within the next year.

Skydio’s Type Certification

You may have heard that Skydio also recently received a type certification.

However, its type certification wasn’t issued by the FAA, and is of a different nature than the one Matternet received.

The Skydio 2+ | Credit: Skydio

Skydio’s certification is for meeting data security requirements and was achieved via a compliance audit made by an advisory firm called Geels Norton, and not by the FAA.

Called an SOC (System and Organization Controls) 2 Type II certification, it means that Skydio’s practices for storing and managing customer data have met the certifications requirements.

To get the certificate, Skydio had to subject many of its practices to outside review, including its network, how it develops software, access to drone controls, and how it assess risk with vendors.

Clearly, this type certification isn’t going to help Skydio do anything new when it comes to the types of drone operations it can perform. But in a time when more and more government agencies are growing concerned about data privacy, especially as it related to drone operations, the certificate is one more feather in the company’s cap when it comes to demonstrating its commitment to security.

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