On April 23, Department of Transportation (DOT) Secretary Elaine L. Chao announced the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) awarded the first air carrier certification (Part 135) to a drone delivery company, Google affiliate Wing Aviation (https://wing.com/). This is especially notable since Part 135 certificates are only given to aircraft operations that demonstrate absolute safety records and procedures. This area of the FAA regulates passenger airlines and aerial cargo companies such as UPS, FEDEX and DHL.
The approval from the FAA means that Wing Aviation can operate commercial drone flights around Blacksburg, VA, which it plans to begin later this year. The FAA in a press release said that the company met the agency’s safety requirements by participating in the FAA AUSIPP (Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration Pilot Program) in Virginia with the Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership and Virginia Tech, and by conducting thousands of flights in Australia over the past several years.
“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.
Wing plans to reach out to the local community before it begins food delivery to gather feedback to inform its future operations. It’s an important step for the company to take, because while commercial UAV flights in the U.S. have grown exponentially in industries such as utilities, pipelines, mapping and agriculture, drones have encountered more obstacles in the delivery of packages and food. Much of that stems from federal regulations that prohibit most flights over people and beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) of the operator without a waiver from the FAA.
Commercial UAV flights conducted to perform inspections or take aerial photographs for mapping normally take place over land that’s controlled or owned by the operator. Delivering packages is an entirely different ball game, as these types of flights could eventually be conducted over tens or even hundreds of different properties and potentially city and county lines. The FAA recently estimated that about 110,000 commercial drones were operating in the U.S., and that number is expected to zoom to about 450,000 in 2022.
This Part 135 certificate to operate in the National Airspace (NAS) is a coveted prize for any company, manned or unmanned, to establish commercial flights in the USA and is not an easy certificate to obtain. Amazon, UPS, DHL and FEDEX all have unmanned delivery initiatives and are actively conducting tests and refining their safety procedures. The fact that these corporate behemoths have not received a Part 135 certificate for a similar program is a testament to how difficult the process is and underscores the importance of what Wing Aviation has accomplished.
A new era of aviation has truly begun.