FAA expects to award first drone airline licence soon

FILE PHOTO: A drone hovers at a viewpoint overlooking the Space Needle and skyline of tech hub Seattle, Washington. REUTERS/Chris Helgren/File photo

SINGAPORE (Reuters) – The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) expects to award the first licence to operate a drone airline in the next month, an official at the regulator said on Wednesday.

The agency decided last year that large-scale commercial package delivery operations by drones would need to meet the same safety and economic certification standards as other licensed US airlines.

“In the next month we expect to announce we will have our first … air carrier certificate for operating a drone airline,” FAA Office of Unmanned Aircraft System Integration Executive Director Jay Merkle said at a conference in Singapore.

“That is a major accomplishment for us and our partner.”

He declined to name the partner, but to date, the only air carrier certificate application for a drone carrier listed on a US government website has come from Wing Aviation LLC, a subsidiary of Google’s parent, Alphabet Inc.

Google and Alphabet did not respond immediately to a request for comment.

FAA documents associated with the application said Wing Aviation was proposing to conduct package deliveries using small fixed-wing drones in a rural area of the United States.

“Operations enabled by this exemption will be the first of their kind – a convergence of prior experience the FAA has with both small UAS operations and air carrier operations,” the FAA said, in reference to unmanned aircraft systems.

The regulator said granting approvals would be in the public interest, in a document dated April 2.

FAA acting administrator Dan Elwell said Wing had already conducted successful trials of its delivery service in Virginia.

“They used a drone to deliver ice cream to a 5-year-old boy in his backyard,” he said at the Singapore conference. 

“They successfully demonstrated how package delivery is going to look one day.”

Wing on Tuesday received approval from Australia’s Civil Aviation Safety Authority to make commercial air deliveries in the northern suburbs of Canberra after an assessment of the safety case. It has been testing drone delivery in Australia since 2014.

Over the past 18 months, Wing has delivered food, small household items and over the counter chemist products more than 3,000 times to Australian homes. 

Wing had said in December it would launch its first European delivery service in Finland in the spring of 2019.

(Reporting by Jamie Freed, additional reporting by Jonathan Weber; Editing by Himani Sarkar)

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