Flight Plan

Another step for drone delivery ecosystems

Last week, United Parcel Service (UPS) announced that it has received the official nod from the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to operate a drone airline. The approval will allow the company to expand its currently small drone delivery service into a country-wide network.

Specifically, the FAA awarded UPS subsidiary UPS Flight Forward a Part 135 Standard certification, allowing approved company drones to fly over people, at night and out of the operator’s line of sight. The certification, the highest level of FAA approval for a drone delivery operation, is a big step in UPS’ plan to integrate drone delivery into its broader logistics network. The company couldn’t have expanded its operation without an exemption from the FAA, and the approval clears it to run as an airline and grow its operations to meet customer demand.

UPS racks up several “firsts” as a result of this milestone. It says it’s the first company to get a full Part 135 Standard certification. The certification will let UPS use several drones and pilots simultaneously, fly beyond a pilot’s visual line of sight, carry cargo weighing more than 55 pounds, and fly at night.

Earlier in 2019, UPS teamed up with drone-maker Matternet to launch a delivery service for the healthcare sector on the WakeMed hospital campus in Raleigh, North Carolina. On receiving the green light from the FAA, UPS Flight Forward launched the first drone delivery flight by any company under Part 135 Standard at the WakeMed facility using a Matternet M2 drone.

UPS has established itself as a leader in deliveries using unmanned aerial vehicles, having tested drones for urgent commercial deliveries over water; funded and supported humanitarian deliveries in Africa; and trialled non-urgent commercial residential delivery in rural areas, with drones launched from a UPS package-delivery car.

But UPS isn’t the only company to receive certification from the FAA for its drones. In April 2019, Alphabet’s Wing received a Part 135 Single pilot air carrier certificate, which trusts a single Wing employee to fly drones, not the whole company (see Wing Takeoff).

UPS points to healthcare as a leading use for drone delivery services, saying that as drones enable the shortest time in transit, they improve efficiency, allowing healthcare professionals to better serve patients. It might be telling the public what it wants to hear, but it’s a valid argument: with its Part 135 Standard certification, UPS should be able to address a variety of critical-care applications.

Drone delivery is still in the PR stage, with huge challenges still to overcome in how people perceive this technology, and, as we recently outlined at our Predictions for 2020 & Beyond event, even bigger obstacles such as the use of drones to pose a terror threat or a security risk.

But companies such as Amazon, FedEx, Google, UPS and Verizon are making investments to build out drone ecosystems. This presents an opportunity for disruption with what’s essentially a fleet of flying robots.