Drone delivery in the U.S. clears a major hurdle

For several years, drone-delivery company Wing has been working with the Virginia Tech Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership to lay the groundwork for a future where it will be routine for deliveries to arrive via wings and propellers instead of on four wheels. 

A key piece of that effort just slid into place: Wing has become the first drone company to receive an Air Carrier Certificate from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).  The certification allows the company to deliver goods commercially, and in the future conduct the kind of advanced operations necessary to make a drone-delivery business practical — flying beyond the pilot’s visual line of sight and over people, for example. 

The certificate reflects years of careful research and testing to build a case to the FAA that expanded drone delivery operations can be conducted safely. Wing’s drones have made thousands of deliveries to hundreds of testers around the world, tests that have produced reams of data on the system’s safety and security and underscored the value of drone delivery to consumers.

“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.

In the U.S., some of the company’s most significant testing has taken place in Blacksburg in collaboration with Virginia Tech; the university’s Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership (MAAP) runs one of seven FAA-designated drone test sites. 

“Commercial delivery is one of the most significant ways that the public is going to interact with drone technology on a routine basis,” explained Mark Blanks, MAAP’s director. “But until now there hasn’t been a clear pathway for traditional aviation regulations, which were designed for manned aircraft, to accommodate it. That’s why this certificate is so significant: It’s a testament to Wing’s meticulous work and unwavering focus on safety, but it’s also a milestone for the industry because it demonstrates that there’s a way to do drone delivery under the current regulatory structure.”

Package delivery by drone offers significant potential benefits to consumers: there are many situations in which a small, lightweight aircraft can transport goods more quickly and safely than alternative methods, and with a lower carbon footprint — especially for short trips or the “last mile” of a multistage journey. Imagine a parent home with a sick child and who can’t easily drive to town to pick up dinner, or a group of friends on a camping trip who just realized they forgot sunscreen. 

“Air carrier certification is an important milestone in the path to using drones to make delivery faster, more convenient and safer than it is with other vehicles,” said Wing CEO James Ryan Burgess. “We’re particularly grateful for MAAP’s partnership in testing and proving out the safety and effectiveness of this technology; without MAAP’s support this certification would not have been possible.”

Residents in a Virginia neighborhood watch from their front walk as a drone flies in to deliver a package to their yard.

MAAP has been working with Wing since 2016, conducting increasingly advanced delivery testing and participating in multiple collaborations on UAS traffic management, a cornerstone of drone integration.  Since August, Wing’s operations in Virginia have unfolded under the auspices of the UAS Integration Pilot Program, an FAA-led initiative that brings together state agencies, local governments, companies, and other stakeholders to find mutually beneficial ways to expand drone operations. 

Virginia’s team, which MAAP manages, is focusing on three commercial applications; drone delivery is one of them, with Wing as a corporate partner. The project kicked off with some fanfare last summer when Wing’s drones delivered popsicles and other treats to a residential neighbourhood near a rural test site — a technically demanding operation that gave U.S. audiences their first glimpse at what routine drone delivery might look like.

“When Virginia won a spot in the IPP program, we knew that it was a pivotal moment in the state’s strong history of UAS innovation,” said Ed Albrigo, the CEO of Virginia’s Center for Innovative Technology, which led the application. “This is a landmark achievement for Wing; we’re tremendously proud to be part of the team, and that we’ve created an environment in Virginia that could help advance commercial drone integration in the United States.”  

With the Air Carrier certification from the FAA in hand, Wing and MAAP can begin planning for commercial deliveries under the Integration Pilot Program. A critical piece of this planning will be outreach to local communities, talking with residents and businesses about what it would mean to bring the future of goods-by-drone a little closer to the present.