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UPS certified for unlimited drone operations

Testing of a UPS Flight Forward drone. Credit: UPS

UPS [NYSE: UPS] plans to take full advantage of a sweeping new certification issued by federal regulators making it the first company with the ability to run drone services with no limit on size or scope of operations.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) today (Oct. 1) announced that it had issued UPS Flight Forward, the company’s drone service subsidiary, a standard operator “Part 135” operating certificate. While the FAA has issued Part 135 certifications that come with more restrictions, such as a “single pilot” certificate awarded to Google affiliate Wing Aviation, a standard operator is a certificate holder that has no pre-set limits – allowing UPS to ramp up revenue operations relatively quickly beyond its current demonstration service in the healthcare sector.

“This is history in the making, and we aren’t done yet,” said UPS CEO David Abney. “Our technology is opening doors for UPS and solving problems in unique ways for our customers. 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.”

UPS launched its drone service earlier this year with drone-maker Matternet, delivering drugs and medical supplies to WakeMed Health’s flagship hospital and surrounding campus in the Raleigh, North Carolina metropolitan area, a partnership that demonstrated a business case for the service. UPS said it can now build on the service and expand into “a variety of critical-care or lifesaving” services, after focusing initially on blood deliveries and medical samples.

“This is a big step forward in safely integrating unmanned aircraft systems into our airspace, expanding access to healthcare in North Carolina and building on the success of the national [Unmanned Aircraft Systems] Integration Pilot Program to maintain American leadership in unmanned aviation,” commented U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao.

The FAA is currently working on six additional part 135 air carrier certificate applications that have been submitted by operators through the agency’s Integration Pilot Program.

UPS noted it has tested drones in the past for urgent commercial deliveries over water, as well as non-urgent commercial residential delivery in rural areas by launching drones from a UPS parcel delivery car.

With standard certification secured, Flight Forward will now be able to fly an unlimited number of drones with an unlimited number of remote operators in command which will allow it to scale operations to meet customer demand, the company stated. It also permits UPS drones and cargo to exceed 55 pounds and fly at night – previous restrictions for the demonstration flights. Its long-term drone plans include:

  • Expansion of the UPS Flight Forward delivery service to new hospitals and medical campuses around the country.
  • Rapid build-out of ground-based, detect-and-avoid technologies to verify drone safety, while enabling future service expansion.
  • Construction of a centralized operations control center.
  • Regular and frequent drone flights beyond the operator’s visual line of sight.
  • Partnerships with additional drone manufacturers to build new drones with varying cargo capacities.
  • Adding new services outside of the healthcare industry, including the transport of special commodities and other regulated goods.

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John Gallagher

Based in Washington, D.C., John specializes in regulation and legislation affecting all sectors of freight transportation. He has covered rail, trucking and maritime issues since 1993 for a variety of publications based in the U.S. and the U.K. John began business reporting in 1993 at Broadcasting & Cable Magazine. He graduated from Florida State University majoring in English and business.