Author(s): Raghu Gopal
This week, the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) announced that Alphabet's Wing Aviation has received certification to operate as an airline, in a first for US drone delivery companies.
Wing, which began as a Google X project, has been testing its autonomous drones in southwest Virginia and in Australia for several years now. The company will begin its first trial in Europe later in 2019, with plans to delivery to homes in Helsinki.
Wing's early drone tests took place in Canberra, Australia in 2014, and the company says its drones have flown more than 70,000 test flights and delivered thousands of packages. Earlier this month, it received regulatory approval in Australia and has launched commercial operations.
In the US, Wing has been operating out of Virginia Tech university, in Blacksburg, Virginia since 2016. Now that it has received regulatory approval in the US, the company plans to offer delivery services in the southwest of the state. Unlike Amazon, Wing does not sell products, but rather offers drone delivery services to other companies; it is now recruiting businesses that want to test its delivery services.
Wing's drone is a hybrid between a helicopter and plane, and can lift off vertically and fly horizontally at high speeds. It carries packages under its belly, lowering them to people's yards with a tether while it hovers at a safe height. 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 kg (3.3 pounds). They're meant to deliver a wide range of everyday items, from food and drinks to medicine and emergency supplies.
The FAA's approval demonstrates the rapidly maturing market for drone technology. By developing delivery drones, Google's parent Alphabet is directly competing with Amazon, which has been testing its own unmanned delivery system, called Prime Air. In addition, delivery companies such as UPS and DHL Express have also been developing their own drone systems.
Now that Wing has received approval, other companies applying for FAA certification should be able to move more quickly. A service like Wing could prove beneficial by delivering vital goods such as pharmaceuticals to remote locations. Drone delivery has reached new heights.