UPS says its drone delivery subsidiary, UPS Flight Forward, has received certification from the Federal Aviation Administration to operate as the nation’s first full-fledged drone airline.
“This is history in the making, and we aren’t done yet,” UPS CEO David Abney said today in a news release.
The FAA’s Part 135 Standard certification means that UPS Flight Forward can fly an unlimited number of drones with an unlimited number of remote operators in command. It can expand its delivery services to new locations, with FAA approval. It can exceed the FAA’s usual limit of 55 pounds for drone and cargo weight, and it can now fly drones at night.
UPS said Flight Forward flew its first drone under the new conditions immediately after getting the word from the FAA on Friday. That drone, a Matternet M2 quadcopter, was launched from WakeMed’s hospital campus in Raleigh, N.C., under a government exemption allowing for flights beyond the operator’s line of sight.
For now, UPS is focusing on drone deliveries of medical products and specimens, based on hospital campuses with a special focus on North Carolina. The experimental phase of the effort was one of 10 pilot projects approved by the U.S. Department of Transportation last year.
In a statement, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao said UPS’ certification 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 Program to maintain American leadership in unmanned aviation.”
UPS said it’s planning to expand its medical delivery operations and provide solutions to customers beyond those in the healthcare industry.
“Our technology is opening doors for UPS and solving problems in unique ways for our customers,” Abney said. “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.”
Today’s announcement raises UPS’ profile as a competitor in the drone delivery space, which is also targeted by Amazon, Walmart and many other companies. Amazon didn’t get in on the Transportation Department’s first round of pilot projects, but the Seattle-based online retailing giant has been working on its drone delivery system for years. It’s been conducting tests in locales ranging from rural Washington state to Britain and Israel.
Amazon Worldwide Consumer CEO Jeff Wilke showed off the latest iteration of the company’s delivery drone design at a Las Vegas conference in June, and said “you’re going to see this new drone delivering packaging to customers in months.”
Wilke told GeekWire at the time that Amazon had FAA permission to conduct test flights “in a couple of locations in the United States,” but there haven’t been any updates on certification for a commercial program. We’ve reached out to Amazon for a status report, and will update this report with anything we can pass along.