This week, Google spin off Project Wing featured in two big pieces of news in the drone industry. First came the news that the company had won the approval of the Australian aviation authorities for their drone delivery program – something that Wing discussed in detail at last fall’s Amsterdam Drone Week (you can read our article about the details of their program here.)
Next was the widespread speculation that Wing would be the first company to get approval from the FAA as a “drone airline” – a move that would pave the way for commercial drone delivery. (The speculation seems reasonable – according to this article in Reuters, Wing is the only application on the table.)
At a conference in Singapore, reports Reuters, FAA Office of Unmanned Aircraft System Integration Executive Director Jay Merkle said that the office would announce the first “air carrier certificate for a drone airline.” But what, exactly, is a drone airline? And what does it mean for the drone industry?
It appears that the FAA has signaled the direction that they may take to authorize commercial drone applications – like drone delivery – that fall outside of the realm of standard missions performed with standard aircraft. A “drone airline” may be able to operate such missions by meeting the requirements not only of a drone service provider, but of a manned aircraft airline.
“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.
It’s an approach that echoes that first taken for commercial drones, before Part 107: when the FAA granted permission to fly commercial drones only to pilots of manned aircraft through exemptions to Section 333. By requiring drone companies to meet the same standards as those that manned aircraft carriers must meet, the FAA may feel that fewer conflicts between manned and unmanned aircraft will arise – at least until a robust framework of unmanned traffic management is implemented across the country.