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Alphabet drone delivery unit gets its Wings

The FAA announces it has approved the use of drones to carry and deliver packages commercially

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James Burgess, CEO of Wing, with its "hummingbird" iteration of delivery drones for testing in Mountain View, California.

New York

MILLIONS of drones buzzing through the air, delivering the groceries you need to make your dinner, the medicine you forgot to pick up from the pharmacy or even a hot cup of coffee.

To some, it is the inevitable, efficient future. To others, it might sound more like the beginnings of a dystopian horror story.

Either way, it is now closer to reality. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) said on Tuesday that Wing, the drone-delivery unit of Google's parent company, Alphabet, had received the agency's first approval to use drones to carry and deliver packages commercially.

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Wing had previously been testing its drones in a suburb of Canberra, Australia, where the machines had made more than 3,000 deliveries, in part to demonstrate the drones' safety and gain the FAA's approval, the company said.

There will be restrictions on its US effort. The drone deliveries will be limited to parts of southwest Virginia, where Wing is already part of an FAA pilot programme looking at how to integrate drones with society. The exact locations are still being determined.

The drones can be operated only during the day, when the weather is clear enough that they can be seen, said Greg Martin, an FAA spokesman.

They cannot fly above 400 feet (planes and helicopters typically fly above 500 feet). One drone pilot can remotely fly up to five machines, although it is not clear if there is a hard cap on the total number of drones allowed in the sky at one time.

Even with the restrictions, the drones' backers portrayed the FAA's approval, called an Air Carrier Certification, as game changing, particularly as regulations, technology and public aversion have slowed the progress of drone-delivery initiatives.

"From our perspective, it's more treating drones like manned aviation," said Mark Blanks, director of the Virginia Tech Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership, one of the organisations involved in the pilot programme. "That accomplishment is huge, and I think it's a preview of the future of where this is headed." Wing did not say when it would start making deliveries or what exactly would be delivered. The company said it would focus on goods from local businesses.

It said it would seek input from community leaders in the next few months on how to best implement the programme.

"For communities across the country, this presents new opportunities," the company said in a statement. "Goods like medicine or food can now be delivered faster by drone, giving families, shift workers and other busy consumers more time to do the things that matter." "Air delivery also provides greater autonomy to those who need assistance with mobility," the company added. "Also, our all-electric drones will reduce traffic on our roads and pollution and carbon emissions in our skies." Not everyone has taken to the idea of drones though. A Pew Research Center survey in December 2017 found that 54 per cent of Americans disapproved of drones flying near homes, 11 per cent supported drones flying in those areas, and 34 per cent favoured limits on such use. NYTIMES