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FAA Approves Google’s Drone Startup, Wing, to Conduct Drone Deliveries as a Certified Air Carrier

BY Zacc Dukowitz
24 April 2019

Yesterday U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Elain Chao announced that Alphabet Inc.’s Wing Aviation, a drone startup that originated at Google X, has been awarded the first air carrier certification ever given to a drone company.

Photo credit: Project Wing

The approval recognizes Wing as an airline, in effect granting them the same certifications smaller airlines receive from the FAA and the U.S. Department of Transportation.

With this approval in place they can now fly drones BVLOS and over people, according to Wing. The approval also gives the company the legal authority to start dropping products to customers—that is, to begin making commercial drone deliveries.

This is an important step forward for the safe testing and integration of drones into our economy. Safety continues to be our Number One priority as this technology continues to develop and realize its full potential.

– Elaine L. Chao, U.S. Secretary of Transportation

Wing has been making major strides on the commercial drone delivery front lately. Just two weeks ago, the company announced that they’d been given permission to launch a regular drone delivery service in Canberra, Australia.

Initially, Wing will limit deliveries to Blacksburg and Christiansburg, VA. Before getting started the company plans to get input from businesses, community members, and local governments to guide their efforts.

Wing has been making test deliveries in the state as one of the Commonwealth of Virginia’s partners in the UAS IPP (Integration Pilot Program), a federal program created to test different types of drone operations typically prohibited by the FAA’s Part 107 rules.

Other partners in Virginia’s pilot program include the Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership and Virginia Tech, as well as several other private companies and government entities (see the full list here).

About Wing’s Delivery Services

How did Wing get to this point?

Through lots and lots of testing. In Australia alone, Wing Aviation has conducted over 70,000 test flights and made more than 3,000 deliveries over the last several years.

The first of Wing’s drone deliveries were made to rural areas in Queensland, Australia in 2014, with deliveries of items such as dog treats, first aid kits, and burritos.

Wing has continued to test drone delivery technology in partnership with the Commonwealth of Virginia as part of the UAS IPP. Their new air carrier certification is the result of extensive data and documentation drawn from all of this testing, which helped them to meet the FAA’s safety requirements.

How does drone delivery service work?

Want to learn more about Wing’s drones? Here’s all the information we have:

  • They are electric
  • They have 14 props
  • They can carry up to 3.3 pounds (1.5 kilograms)
  • They can fly up to 75 miles an hour (120 kilometers/hour)
  • They can fly up to 400 feet vertically
  • They convert GPS signals into latitude and longitude to determine location and speed
  • They come with redundant systems for navigation and operation, including a downward-facing camera that functions as a backup GPS (this camera does not capture data—it’s used exclusively for navigation)

Wing Aviation and the UAS IPP

Although Wing had done a tremendous amount of testing on its own, their air carrier certification was certainly assisted by their involvement in the UAS IPP and the drone delivery testing and safety demonstrations they were able to do through that involvement.

Photo credit: Project Wing

The UAS IPP has led to several first-of-their-kind approvals from the FAA for various private drone companies. In fact, this kind of progress is one of the reasons the program was created—to help companies in the drone industry test operations that are generally prohibited, such as drone deliveries, in order to make a path forward for these operations to become normalized in commercial settings.

To date, at least four of the ten programs that were approved for the UAS IPP have led to FAA approvals for types of flying generally prohibited by the FAA’s Part 107 rules:

  • This week, Wing Aviation was awarded air carrier certification by the FAA
  • Earlier this month, Matternet was given permission by the FAA to make drone deliveries on the WakeMed hospital campus in Raleigh, NC
  • Last month, Flirtey secured FAA approval to fly BVLOS in Reno, NV to deliver defibrillators to people undergoing cardiac arrest
  • In January, State Farm received FAA approval to fly BVLOS and over people to conduct damage assessments for insurance adjustments

Although commercial drone deliveries flagged in 2018, given all these recent approvals it’s looking like 2019 might end up being the year of drone delivery.

However, it is important to note that Wing’s air carrier certification does not seem to give the company carte blanche to make commercial drone deliveries anywhere at any time within the U.S., but rather opens the regulatory door for Wing to proceed with laying down the groundwork for deliveries.

While we don’t expect drone deliveries to become a daily reality in every U.S. city in 2019, we do believe we’ll start seeing them in certain places with some regularity by the end of the year.

What do you think—will Wing start delivering to your city soon? Chime in to share your thoughts on this thread in the UAV Coach community forum.

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