UPS has gotten the go-ahead from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration to operate a drone airline, beating competitors like Amazon and Alphabet’s Wing to the milestone. The logistics giant can now expand nationwide a medical delivery service that it has piloted on a hospital campus in North Carolina with the drone startup Matternet.
The venture is the first of a number of aspiring drone delivery services to win Part 135 certification from the FAA. UPS can fly an unlimited number of drones, fly them at night, and operate drones whose weight and cargo exceed 55 pounds.
However, operations will be restricted to rural areas and campus-like settings like colleges and medical centers where population density is lower, and UPS will need to apply for exemptions on a route-by-route basis to fly drones beyond the pilot’s visual line of sight. The FAA has yet to formulate rules to allow for drone operations in urban areas.
“This is history in the making, and we aren’t done yet,” said David Abney, UPS’s chief executive officer, 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.”
In March, UPS and Matternet launched a pilot commercial service on the WakeMed medical center campus in Raleigh, North Carolina, to carry lab specimens from clinics to WakeMed’s central laboratory for analysis, under the auspices of the federal UAS Integration Pilot Program, which launched in 2018 in ten locations around the U.S. to work out ways to integrate drones into local airspace. UPS and Matternet touted it as the first regular revenue-generating drone delivery service in the United States. Drone delivery should enable quicker turnaround on urgently needed tests and ultimately could allow healthcare systems to save money by consolidating their labs.
UPS said it plans to expand the service, called UPS Flight Forward, to more hospitals and medical campuses around the country, and partner with more drone makers to source vehicles with higher cargo capacities than Matternet’s M2 quadcopter, which has a weight limit of 5 pounds.
Matternet, based in Mountain View, California, has been delivering lab samples in Switzerland since 2017 in collaboration with Swiss Post, completing thousands of flights in the cities of Lugano, Berne and Zurich, according to the company.
Wing, which is owned by Google’s parent company, Alphabet, received a more limited form of Part 135 approval from the FAA in April to operate a commercial drone delivery service in a part of southwestern Virginia, and only during the day. It will launch service later this month, delivering FedEx packages and medications and wellness products for Walgreens.
Amazon showed off its latest delivery drone over the summer at an event in Las Vegas and said that it would launch a service to deliver customers’ packages under the Prime Air name within months.
Uber Eats began testing a food delivery service in San Diego over the summer.