Proving the Business Case for the Internet of Things

FAA lets UPS operate drone airline

Steve Rogerson
October 15, 2019



UPS has been given FAA approval to operate a drone airline. The logistics company says it plans to extend its drone delivery network serving healthcare and other customers.
 
The approval was given to subsidiary UPS Flight Forward and is the US government’s first full part 135 standard certification to operate a drone airline.
 
UPS says it will initially expand its drone delivery service further to support hospital campuses around the USA, and to provide drone deliveries for its customers beyond those in the healthcare industry.
 
The logistics company plans in the future to transport a variety of items in many industries, and regularly fly drones beyond the operators’ visual line of sight.
 
Immediately after the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) awarded the certification, UPS launched the first drone delivery flight by any company under part 135 at WakeMed’s hospital campus in Raleigh, North Carolina. That flight, using a Matternet M2 quadcopter, was flown under a government exemption allowing for a beyond visual line of sight operation, also a first in the USA for a regular revenue-generating delivery.
 
UPS has shown the need for drone delivery in healthcare operations, where the shortest time in transit can improve efficiency and help healthcare professionals serve their patients better. Earlier this year, UPS partnered with drone-maker Matternet to launch its healthcare delivery service on the WakeMed campus. This first ever revenue-generating service demonstrated the business case for drone delivery of medical products and specimens.
 
With its part 135 certification, UPS is ready to build on this application and expand to various critical-care or lifesaving applications.
 
“This is history in the making, and we aren’t done yet,” said David Abney, UPS chief executive officer. “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.”
 
The certification has no limits on the size or scope of operations. It is the highest level of certification, one that no other company has attained. It permits the company to fly an unlimited number of drones with an unlimited number of remote operators in command. This enables UPS to scale its operations to meet customer demand.
 
The certificate also permits the drone and cargo to exceed 25kg and fly at night, previous restrictions governing earlier UPS flights.
 
“UPS Flight Forward is benefitting from our knowledge as one of the world’s leading airlines,” said Abney. “The Flight Forward organisation is building a full-scale drone operation based on the rigorous reliability, safety and control requirements of the FAA.”
 
US secretary of transportation Elaine Chao added: “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 UAS integration pilot programme to maintain American leadership in unmanned aviation.”
 
UPS has established itself in unmanned aerial vehicle delivery, having tested drones for urgent commercial deliveries over water; funded and supported humanitarian deliveries in Africa; and tested non-urgent commercial residential delivery in rural areas with drones launched from a UPS package delivery car.
 
UPS also has provided input to government regulators responsible for establishing rules for safe drone operations in the USA. A UPS senior executive has served since 2017 as one of a select group of corporate advisors on the FAA’s drone advisory committee.
 
The certification lets UPS integrate drones into its logistics network, creating potential for new applications in many industries. The company has a long-term plan with milestones in view. These include:

  • Expansion of the UPS Flight Forward delivery service to more 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 centralised operations control centre.
  • Regular and frequent drone flights beyond the operator’s visual line of sight.
  • Partnerships with additional manufacturers to build drones with varying cargo capacities.
  • Adding services outside of the healthcare industry, including the transport of special commodities and other regulated goods.
A part 135 standard operator is a certificate holder that does not have pre-set limits on the available size or scope of their operations. There are four different scopes of operations for part 135 certificate holders, as outlined by the FAA: 135 single pilot; 135 single pilot in command; basic; and standard.