Los Angeles Times
Drone delivery earns a Wing
Offshoot of Google clears hurdles for FAA approval to bring products to buyers.
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.