April 25, 2019
Wing Aviation, a unit of Alphabet, received the Federal Aviation Administration’s first authorization to deliver consumer goods via drone. Being first is a coup for Google’s parent company and a harbinger that many other companies — Amazon among them — will soon launch drone delivery services. Not long ago, officials predicted that the FAA wouldn’t implement the first rules for unmanned aircraft delivery until 2020 or 2021. The current FAA permit for Wing Aviation only includes a rural area around Blacksburg, Virginia.
The Wall Street Journal reports that this introduction “doesn’t resolve longstanding industry hurdles including security concerns about widespread drone operations, or current restrictions on commercial drone flights over populated areas.” But the FAA indicated plans to “approve so-called air-carrier certifications even before a full regulatory framework is in place … building on lessons learned from pilot programs championed by the Transportation Department and White House aides.”
The company tested its drone delivery in this Virginia area, in partnership with Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (also known as Virginia Tech) and other partners, delivering food to customers free of charge. Wing Aviation will now “be able to establish a fledgling business, charge for deliveries … [as well as] apply to start similar operations elsewhere.”
The FAA approval states that “unmanned aircraft will travel over longer distances than are now typically permitted for carrying payloads, and are envisioned to fly beyond the visual sight of operators.” Wing Aviation will likely quiz local residents and businesses about what goods, including food and medicine, “might be carried exclusively during daylight hours.”
According to WSJ, the FAA approval will “provide a template for other drone-delivery proposals,” and also highlights that many other countries, including Australia, Iceland, Singapore and Switzerland, are already “authorizing routine commercial-drone flights and setting up new air-traffic control systems to facilitate their growth.” They ran thousands of test flights in Australia, and “recently received approval to start limited commercial deliveries” there.
Wing Aviation’s drone is hybrid, “able to take off vertically like a helicopter,” but then, with separate propeller-driven engines, flies like a plane via human pilots. Moving forward, the company will be able to offer “pilot training, approved safety systems, mandatory collection of incident data and other safeguards.”