Wing, Google’s drone-delivery company, has been awarded the nation’s first FAA certification to operate under charter air carrier rules.
The certification, under rules hashed out in extensive talks between the FAA and Wing, opens a wide door for other drone-delivery services.
It permits delivery drones to be operated by Wing in a Virginia program to fly far beyond the operator’s line of sight and to fly over occupied residential and commercial areas.
The initial flights will be revenue-generating drone delivery of food items to residents and businesses in the Blacksburg-Christiansburg-Radford metropolitan area of rural Montgomery County in eastern Virginia.
“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,” said U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine L. Chao.
The certificate enables Wing to operate as a commercial delivery service in the federal Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration Pilot Program in a region of eastern Virginia.
So far, the FAA has approved 10 projects under waivers from the program. Four incorporate some sort of delivery-by-drone component.
The projects were approved by the Transportation Department last year under legislation aimed at speeding up the commercial use of drones – including the drafting of necessary regulations.
The Wing certificate is limited to the Virginia operation, although the company can apply for additional routes. A set of rules opening the skies across the country to drone delivery is still years away, according to Colin Snow, chief executive of Skylogic Research and a prominent drone-industry analyst.
Rules permitting drones to fly over occupied areas and beyond the operator’s line of sight, however limited at first, are critical to making commercial deliveries financially feasible, Snow told Trucks.com.
Other drone-delivery companies still will have to win their own ‘airline’ certificates, but they should have an easier time now that the FAA has figured out which airline rules will apply to drones and which – such as seat-belt requirements – won’t.
The Wing drones will carry an identification system that enables law enforcement to track them. While they use cameras as backups to their GPS systems, the cameras are only used for navigation, not for recording video, and they don’t transmit images in real time, according to privacy information posted on Wing’s website.
The FAA said that it considered extensive data from Wing including documentation of “thousands” of safe drone flights the company conducted in a pilot program in Australia – delivering food from a Mexican restaurant chain and medicines and consumer goods from a pharmacy chain.
Wing said it plans to do extensive local outreach before actually beginning flights, which are slated to start this summer.