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Drone company Wing gets ‘air carrier’ approval from FAA, allowing deliveries that will launch in Virginia

See the original prototype for Google's delivery drone, "Project Wing." It conducts a dog-food-drop field test in Queensland, Australia. (Video: Google)

Wing, a delivery venture that is part of Google parent Alphabet, has become 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, Va.

Company executives said they plan to expand to other parts of Virginia and around the nation, though the timeline for that remains unclear. Uber, UPS and other companies are also working on securing related approvals from federal officials, who have been pushing to expand drone use even as concerns about security and privacy remain.

Wing executives said they’ll ask residents and businesses in southwestern Virginia what they want delivered, as they have in Australia, where the company received permission to expand operations. Over-the-counter medicines and food are in the mix.

“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,” Wing chief executive James Ryan Burgess said. 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,” he said.

As for how neighbors’ quality of life might be affected by buzzing next-door deliveries, the company said its drones “are quieter than a range of noises you would experience in a suburb, but they make a unique sound that people are unlikely to be familiar with.” Wing said it is working to develop “new, quieter and lower-pitched propellers.”

Wing’s new status was granted under regulations in place to cover traditional charter flights, such as those carrying tourists on unscheduled hops between Hawaiian islands, rather than under rules specified for drones. That allowed Wing to leap a major hurdle.

Under the drone-specific regulations, the company could not charge to deliver packages from other companies or individuals over long distances — meaning beyond what the drone’s operator can see.

And now it can do just that, delivering “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.

While Wing’s corporate sibling Google has faced growing challenges from privacy advocates and some regulators in Europe and elsewhere about how it employs its users’ data, Wing’s executives said data captured by its drones would be available only to a small group for safety and performance purposes.

Wing has also emphasized the importance of community feedback and cooperation with local authorities.

Before launching Wing’s commercial service in Blacksburg, home of Virginia Tech, and neighboring Christiansburg later this year, Burgess said, company executives are planning surveys and other outreach, including decidedly analog efforts such as “putting fliers in peoples’ mailboxes and even door-knocking and holding town hall meetings,” Burgess said.

Wing is partnering with Virginia Tech and other firms as part of a federal drone integration pilot program.

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“People obviously have some concerns because it’s so new, and it’s helpful for us to be able to provide that background context” on the technology and its benefits, Burgess said, pointing to speed and lower-emissions deliveries.

The FAA said it considered “extensive data” and thousands of safe Wing flights in Australia in the certification. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao called it “an important step forward for the safe testing and integration of drones into our economy.” 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.

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.

But how that stated intent would be overseen or enforced isn’t clear.

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. U.S. national security officials have raised concerns about whether some of the large number of drones already in use could be used as weapons.

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Burgess said the future of what might be carried in the drones remains open-ended, adding: “We don’t have all the right answers.”

In Australia, an espresso maker wanted to deliver drinks, which Wing executives weren’t sure would be a great idea. But they tried it, and “it turned out to be fairly popular,” Burgess said.

And “if you want to dream long term,” Burgess said, there might eventually be “peer-to-peer sharing and carrying things from household to household, so people can share tools and other things like that. There are a lot of neat potential uses that might even transform the way we think about commerce and retail.”