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Google drones may soon fly commercially over Virginia

Drone delivery in Canberra. Photo credit: Wing

The Trump Administration could soon be approving its first license for commercial drone delivery services, with Google affiliate Wing Aviation LLC the likely top contender.

“In the next month we expect to announce we will have our first…air carrier certificate for operating a drone airline,” said Jay Merkle, head of the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) Integration, as quoted by Reuters. “That is a major accomplishment for us and our partner.” Merkle was attending an aviation conference in Singapore, according to the news agency.

FAA officials did not respond when asked to comment further on the proposed licensee. However, Wing Aviation, a subsidiary of Google parent Alphabet Inc. [NASDAQ: GOOGL], received FAA regulatory exemptions on March 28 necessary to enable Wing’s small UAS air carrier certification program.

According to its exemption application, Wing will be looking first to “demonstrate safe commercial operation of UAS beginning in the Blacksburg-Roanoke [Virginia] area,” and then expand operations in coordination with the FAA. The company has been working closely with the Trump Administration’s UAS Integration Pilot Program to conduct drone delivery tests in Blacksburg at Virginia Tech University, initially delivering Chipotle burritos to students and then on-demand items to homes near campus.

After receiving an order from a mobile app, one of the company’s fleet of drones can pick up a package from a business or home, fly to a designated destination, hover about 20 feet over the delivery area, and use a tether to lower the package to a precise location such as a backyard or a doorstep, according to its exemption application. Wing uses its own unmanned traffic management (UTM) system to manage the drone’s flight path from take-off to landing to ensure safe operations around obstacles such as buildings, trees, and other drones.

Here’s how it works.

“Within a few years, drones will provide new services from the air, changing how we run our businesses and move things around,” Wing states on its website. “As demand for commercial drone services continues to grow, we need systems that will automate the support and management of these flights.” The company’s intent is to use its UTM platform “to support the growing drone industry by enabling a high volume of drones to share the skies and fly safely over people, around terrain and buildings, and near airports.”

In granting the exemption, the FAA said delivery operations made possible by Wing “will be the first of their kind – a convergence of prior experience the FAA has with both small UAS operations and air carrier operations. As the FAA gains more data and experience related to operations of this kind and learns from each operator, policy could be adjusted going forward.”

Wing’s exemption request received 18 comments and was supported, unsurprisingly, by drone enthusiasts and drone lobbying associations, with concerns or opposition registered by airline pilots and aviation companies, including Boeing [NYSE: BA].

Ashland, Oregon-based Timberland Helicopters, which provides law enforcement and firefighting services, called Wing’s application “too overreaching and too broad in terms of the many regulations it requests exemption from.” Instead, the industry should wait until the FAA updates its existing rules, the company stated. “We need to slow down and allow the process to work and allow the FAA the time to carefully and thoughtfully proceed with a more comprehensive plan of regulatory control and allowances over UAS.”

The start of that process was an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPRM) to identify major drone safety and security issues. The 60-day comment period generated over 1,800 comments by the April 15 deadline.

Wing’s move into the commercial space, meanwhile, is picking up speed. On April 8 it launched its first commercial delivery service in North Canberra, Australia. Customers there can order fresh food, hot coffee and over-the-counter medications and have them delivered directly to their home by drone in minutes.

The company plans to launch a similar service in Helsinki, Finland, sometime this spring, according to its website.

John Gallagher

Based in Washington, D.C., John specializes in regulation and legislation affecting all sectors of freight transportation. He has covered rail, trucking and maritime issues since 1993 for a variety of publications based in the U.S. and the U.K. John began business reporting in 1993 at Broadcasting & Cable Magazine. He graduated from Florida State University majoring in English and business.