The first air carrier certificate for a commercial drone delivery service in the US has been awarded by the FAA to Wing, a subsidiary of Google parent company Alphabet.

Armed with its Part 135 operator’s certificate, Wing now plans to engage with communities and businesses in Blacksburg and Christiansburg in southwest Virginia, close to where it has been trialing delivery drones with the Virginia Tech-run Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership (MAAP) unmanned aircraft system (UAS) test site.

Earlier in April, Wing launched its first commercial drone delivery service in a suburb of Australian capital Canberra, after more than four years of testing with select customers in Australia. The company plans to launch its first European trial this spring in Helsinki, Finland.

Commercial operations in the US will begin later this year, CEO James Ryan Burgess said. Award of the Part 135 certificate means the entire Wing organization, and not just the drone itself, has met the FAA’s requirements for operating for hire, including economic authority, documentation and training, he said.

Wing has been flying drones in the US beyond visual line of sight and over people under waivers to FAA Part 107 rules, but these exemptions cannot be combined with commercial delivery operations, so Wing had to secure an air carrier certificate, previously only granted to operators flying manned aircraft.

The latest version of Wing’s Hummingbird delivery drone has been flying since 2017 and has logged some 70,000 flights as part of the testing to obtain commercial operating approvals. The 15-lb. drone takes off vertically with 12 rotors, converts to wing-borne cruise flight, then hovers over the delivery location and lowers the package to the ground with a winch.

Burgess says Wing’s location for test flying with MAAP is not suitable for commercial operations, so the company is looking for a base closer to the built-up areas it will be serving. In Australia, the delivery center is located on an industrial estate in the northern Canberra suburb of Mitchell, with the drones initially serving customers is the neighboring suburbs of Crace, Palmerston and Franklin.

As in Australia, US delivery operations will use Wing’s unmanned traffic management (UTM) platform to integrate drone flights into national airspace. Wing is an FAA-approved UAS service supplier and is working with MAAP and other service providers to accelerate UTM deployment under the agency’s UAS Pilot Program.

Commercial delivery operations in Virginia will be part of the FAA’s ongoing UAS Integration Pilot Program (IPP), under which Wing is working with MAAP. But the air carrier certificate is for the organization and applies outside the IPP, enabling Wing to expand to other locations, Burgess said.

The delivery service model used in Canberra involves business partners co-locating with the drone operating base. Launch partners include a bakery, pharmacy and golf shop, as well gelato and coffee retailers. Operations are beginning at 30-50 flights a day and are expected to expand as more residents are able to use the service.

For the US operation, “we are looking at several models,” Burgess said. Business partners storing or preparing items at the delivery center is the simplest and fastest option, but Wing is keen to “expand the reach of the corner store,” he said. This involves flying the drone from its base to the merchant, picking up the items, delivering them to the customer then returning to base.

Because the commercial service will be the first of its kind, much of the focus initially will be on gathering feedback from customers and businesses to understand the value of drone delivery.

“Our challenge is to make this a viable business,” Burgess said, noting that studies suggest drone flights will be up to 90% less expensive than traditional ground transportation for on-demand deliveries.

Graham Warwick,