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FAA certification puts drone firm Zipline in league of its own

FAA Part 135 certificate grants longest-range commercial drone deliveries in US

Zipline will begin flights up to 26 miles round trip out of a hub in North Carolina later this month (Photo: Ziplinee)

Drone delivery may have a new ringleader, and it isn’t Amazon Prime Air, despite nearly a decade of promises. Neither is it Google’s drone delivery arm Wing nor UPS’ drone unit Flight Forward.

Bay Area-based Zipline may have leapt past them all. The drone delivery firm on Tuesday received a Part 135 air carrier certification from the FAA that will allow it to fly the longest-range commercial drone deliveries in the U.S. It will begin deliveries spanning up to 26 miles round trip out of its hub in Kannapolis, North Carolina.

Zipline’s certification is the first issued through the FAA’s Beyond initiative, a program that aims to accelerate the integration of beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) drone operations into U.S. airspace. As a result, the certification allows it to fly beyond the viewing range of the operator, as well as over people.

The certification is more expansive than any granted by the FAA to a drone delivery firm so far.

“Zipline makes a delivery every four minutes — ensuring people get access to the products they need, the moment they need them,” said Zipline CEO and co-founder Keller Rinaudo. “With our Part 135 certification, and in close collaboration with our partners and the FAA, we are one step closer to making safe, clean and quiet instant delivery a reality for communities across the U.S.”

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Out of its North Carolina hub, Zipline later this month will begin delivering for its health care partners Novant Health, Magellan Rx Management and Cardinal Health. The company has operated in the state for a few years now under the Beyond program, which counts the North Carolina Department of Transportation as a participant.

Zipline said the service will cover a nearly 8,000-square-mile area.

Later this year, the firm said it will launch medical drone deliveries with Intermountain Healthcare in Utah. And in Arkansas, it plans to expand its delivery service with Walmart, which got off the ground in November under an FAA Part 107 certification.

In addition to its services in the U.S., Zipline flies with Toyota Tsusho Corp. in Japan and nationwide in Rwanda and Ghana, where it has delivered over 1 million COVID-19 vaccines. The company recently announced expansions into Kenya and Ivory Coast.

Earlier this month, Zipline unveiled a detect-and-avoid system. The solution uses acoustics, rather than an array of visual tools like cameras and sensors, to identify obstacles in the path of the drone. It works within a 6,500-foot range and covers 360 degrees.

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With a Part 135 air carrier certification from the FAA granting it long-range BVLOS drone flights, Zipline is well positioned to steal the spotlight from some of drone delivery’s biggest names. 

In April, Google’s Wing launched a commercial service in the suburbs of Dallas-Fort Worth, its largest project to date. And just last week, Amazon Prime Air made its long-awaited U.S. debut in the small town of Lockeford, California.

Meanwhile, smaller players are also getting in on the action. Bay Area-based Elroy Air in March collaborated with FedEx on test flights of its Chaparral drone, while Israeli drone firm Flytrex has inked a number of partnerships with U.S. companies in recent months, including Brinker International, Jersey Mike’s and Unilever.

Yet none of them have quite the scale that Zipline will have with its new certification. Drone delivery in the U.S. has largely been limited to small delivery networks spanning one or two towns or suburbs. But having been granted a longer delivery range than any commercial drone service in the U.S. to date, Zipline could ratchet things up to the next level.

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Jack Daleo

Jack Daleo is a staff writer for Flying Magazine covering advanced air mobility, including everything from drones to unmanned aircraft systems to space travel — and a whole lot more. He spent close to two years reporting on drone delivery for FreightWaves, covering the biggest news and developments in the space and connecting with industry executives and experts. Jack is also a basketball aficionado, a frequent traveler and a lover of all things logistics.