Los Angeles Times

Drone delivery earns a Wing

Offshoot of Google clears hurdles for FAA approval to bring products to buyers.

- bloomberg

An offshoot of Alphabet Inc.’s Google has become the first drone operator to receive government approval as an airline, an important step that gives it the legal authority to begin dropping products to customers.

The subsidiary, Wing, now has the same certificat­ions that smaller airlines receive from the Federal Aviation Administra­tion and the Department of Transporta­tion. It said it plans to begin routine deliveries of small consumer items in two rural communitie­s in Virginia within months.

“It’s an exciting moment for us to have earned the FAA’s approval to actually run a business with our technology,” Wing Chief Executive James Ryan Burgess said in an interview. He called it “pivotal” for his company and the drone industry in general.

Drone regulation­s still don’t permit most flights over crowds and urban areas, limiting where Wing can operate. But the approvals signed by the FAA on Friday and Monday give the company the ability to charge for deliveries of clients’ goods in Virginia and apply for permission to expand to other regions.

Scores of companies working in test programs have gotten FAA waivers to perform demonstrat­ion flights or to make deliveries over short distances, but there has never been a drone company approved under the regulation­s designed to ensure safety at traditiona­l charter airlines or smaller air-cargo haulers.

It required Wing to create extensive manuals, training routines and a safety hierarchy — just as any air carrier must do.

Companies receiving permission must also be majority-owned by U.S. citizens under long-standing Transporta­tion Department regulation­s.

The plan has received unanimous approval from elected officials in southwest Virginia, according to Montgomery County Administra­tor Craig Meadows.

Because the idea of drones flying over people’s homes is so new, the company plans to conduct extensive outreach to local government leaders and the public, Burgess said. Deliveries are expected to start within several months.

Mark Blanks, director of the Virginia Tech Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnershi­p, which has been working with Wing on delivery tests, said they would “be working with the community a lot more as we prepare to roll this out.”

The people living in the neighborho­ods where tests were conducted included academics at Virginia Tech and farmworker­s, Blanks said. Wing and university representa­tives have contacted many of them to ensure they were comfortabl­e. “Across the board,” he said, “everybody we’ve spoken to has been pretty excited.”

Wing provided extensive documentat­ion to support its applicatio­n, including records of thousands of safe f lights conducted in Australia in recent years, according to the FAA.

“This is an important step forward for the safe testing and integratio­n of drones into our economy,” Transporta­tion Secretary Elaine Chao said in a news release.

Some drone companies have complained that the process was too onerous. Many of the requiremen­ts that made sense for a charter airline — such as seat belts for the crew — didn’t apply to them.

Burgess said the FAA applicatio­n process took months and was “very rigorous and very thorough.”

Other drone companies applying for FAA approvals should be able to move more quickly, now that the agency and Wing have worked through the issue of which rules apply, and don’t apply, to drone operators, Burgess said.

The FAA’s air carrier certificat­ion was needed because existing rules created strictly for drones don’t allow the kind of flight Wing envisioned, he said.

In order for Wing to operate over longer ranges and charge for the service, it needed to become a fullfledge­d air carrier. The FAA confirmed the air carrier certificat­ion was signed.

Wing plans to begin deliveries in Virginia’s Blacksburg and Christians­burg areas. The company has been conducting research at nearby Virginia Tech’s MidAtlanti­c Aviation Partnershi­p.

 ?? Michael Shroyer Associated Press ?? WING, LED by CEO James Ryan Burgess, now holds the same certificat­ions that smaller airlines receive from the FAA and Department of Transporta­tion.
Michael Shroyer Associated Press WING, LED by CEO James Ryan Burgess, now holds the same certificat­ions that smaller airlines receive from the FAA and Department of Transporta­tion.

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