- The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) granted UPS' drone delivery subsidiary, Flight Forward, full air carrier and operator (Part 135) certification Tuesday, according to U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao.
- While concrete steps have yet to be laid out, UPS said in a press release release that Flight Forward will begin expanding its delivery service to hospitals and medical facilities nationwide, scaling up from its current pilot program on WakeMed's hospital campus in Raleigh, North Carolina. Its current operations involve transporting temperature-sensitive blood and other medical items using Matternet drones capable of carrying up to five pound loads over 12.5 miles.
- UPS launched Flight Forward in July while its Part 135 application was pending with the FAA. Until now, the carrier has been running multiple non-commercial drone delivery pilot programs, focusing on medical supply deliveries, under a Part 107 certification which limits drone operations to daytime flights, within the line of sight of a human operator and over uninhabited areas, among other restrictions. The Part 135 certification waives these restrictions and will allow Flight Forward to begin commercial deliveries.
"This is history in the making, and we aren't done yet," David Abney, UPS CEO, said in a statement. "We will soon announce other steps to build out our infrastructure, expand services for healthcare customers and put drones to new uses in the future."
Proponents of drones say the tech allows medical staff to send and receive deliveries faster than depending on their previous system of courier cars that could be subject to traffic delays. Ground courier services also travel on infrequent schedules, called "batch processing," that can cause the lab to become overrun with a slew of samples at once.
"Using [small unmanned aircraft] to transport samples across these distances is a much more efficient and timely process, eliminating the batch processing and providing a steady flow of samples to test," UPS wrote in its petition.
In addition, the company intends to expand the range of items it delivers to include specialty commodities and consumer goods, and launch new types of drones through partnerships with new manufacturers.
To manage the increase in drone deliveries and expansion of Flight Forward's network, UPS said it plans to build a "centralized operations control center" and roll out "ground-based, detect-and-avoid technologies to verify drone safety" and manage multiple delivery flight paths simultaneously.
UPS has been participating in the Department of Transportation's UAS Integration Pilot Program (UAS IPP) with a number of other drone aviation companies including Alphabet's Wing Aviation, currently the only other drone delivery company with a Part 135 certification. The goal of the program is to develop or modify flight regulations to ensure drones, as they begin to enter commercial operations, operate under consistent and feasible regulations.
"This is a big step forward in safely integrating unmanned aircraft systems into our airspace," Chao said in a statement, "and building on the success of the national UAS Integration Pilot Program to maintain American leadership in unmanned aviation."
Now that two big players in the industry have been certified, it could only be a matter of time before the door opens to other companies in the UAS IPP and the market at large.