In a first for U.S. drone delivery companies the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has certified Alphabet’s Wing Aviation to operate as an airline. Wing, a delivery venture and part of Google parent Alphabet, is the first drone company to be certified as an “air carrier” by the Federal Aviation Administration, allowing it to launch a package-delivery service within months in Blacksburg, Virginia.
“Air Carrier Certification means that we can begin a commercial service delivering goods from local businesses to homes in the United States,” Wing said in a statement posted to the Medium website making Wing the first to be approved as an airline in the United States.
“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,” Secretary of Transportation Elaine L. Chao said in a statement from the agency.
Two things. (1) The Federal Aviation Administration granted us the first Air Carrier Certificate for drones in the U.S. today. (2) We’re celebrating by joining Twitter 🎉#FAA #USDOT https://t.co/fokqR0pMCk
— Wing (@Wing) April 23, 2019
Certification process & significance
In a statement to NPR, the FAA says Wing was able to qualify for an air carrier certificate because it has shown “its operations met the FAA’s rigorous safety requirements.” In order to receive the certification, Wing said it had proved that its drone deliveries carry a lower risk to pedestrians than those made by cars. 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 restrictions imposed by the DOT.
.@USDOT Secretary Elaine L. Chao announced that the #FAA has awarded the first air carrier certificate to a #DroneDelivery company: @Wing, to begin drone delivery in #Blacksburg, #VA. Learn more at https://t.co/nRywPYiGGl. #FlySafe pic.twitter.com/WoSYhh96RV
— The FAA (@FAANews) April 23, 2019
With this new “airline” status As of now Wing is “other people’s cargo for hire . . . beyond line of sight, which is pretty valuable since the purpose of drones is to carry things a good distance,” Burgess said.
According to reports from Reuters Wing partnered with the Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership and Virginia Tech as one of the participants in the Transportation Department’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration Pilot Program.
Company executives said they plan to expand to other parts of Virginia and around the nation. Wing, which began as a Google X project, has been testing its autonomous drones in southwest Virginia.
Feedback based operations
Wing chief executive James Ryan Burgess said, “In the short term, you look at what people do every day, especially people with really busy schedules or parents with young children who have a lot of demands on their time. Getting what you need late at night or ‘a healthy meal delivered, hot and fresh’, in just a few minutes, can make a pretty transformative impact in quality of life.”
Emphasizing the importance of community feedback and cooperation with local authorities Wing executives said they’ll ask residents and businesses in south-western Virginia what they want delivered, as they have in Australia, where the company received permission to expand operations through publicity drives like “putting fliers in peoples’ mailboxes and even door-knocking and holding town hall meetings,” as per Burgess.
Wing’s electric drones are powered by 14 propellers, nearly all of which are top-mounted to help carry loads of up to 1.5 kilograms (3.3 pounds). They’re meant to deliver a wide range of everyday items, from food and drinks to medicine and emergency supplies. Wing’s drone, a hybrid between a helicopter and plane, is able to lift off vertically and fly horizontally at high speeds. It carries packages in its belly, lowering them to people’s yards with a tether while it hovers a safe distance overhead.
— Roland Goecke (@rolaustral) April 23, 2019
Security concerns addressed
Addressing security concerns Wing’s executives said data captured by its drones would be available only to a small group for safety and performance purposes. The FAA said it considered “extensive data” and thousands of safe Wing flights in Australia in the certification. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao clarified that Wing must operate during the day and out of the rain. It can transit over people but can’t hover above them, and it can’t carry hazardous materials. The certification is good for two years, the FAA said. One pilot can operate up to five drones at once and only during the day.
Addressing disturbing noise levels emanating from drone propellers Wing said its drones “are quieter than a range of noises you would experience in a suburb, but that Wing is working to develop “new, quieter and lower-pitched propellers.”
On privacy, Wing said its drones have a downward-facing camera “used exclusively for navigation.”
If the GPS navigation tools cut out, “the camera measures speed, latitude and longitude in its place. . . . It doesn’t capture video and is not available in real time,” according to company materials.
The “low-resolution” images are “only available to a small group of engineers for the purpose of analyzing safety and performance criteria. Wing takes privacy extremely seriously and actively avoids capturing any more data than is necessary for the safe operation of its drones,” the company said.
The company has also demonstrated identification technology to help law enforcement and ordinary residents track some of the drones that would be flying over their communities.
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