UPS is seeking permission from the federal government to operate an extensive network of commercial drones in the US. If approved, the delivery giant could be permitted to fly drones over populated areas, at night, and out of the operator’s line of sight.
UPS is seeking what’s known as Part 135 certification under the Federal Aviation Administration, which applies to “air carriers and operators.” Since they’re considered aircraft under federal law, drones from delivery operators like UPS are being put through the same safety and economic certification processes as companies that fly planes.
Very few drone companies have been given the green light under Part 135. In April, Alphabet’s Wing became the first to receive FAA approval to operate commercially. Others, including Uber’s food delivery service Uber Eats and Amazon Air, have yet to receive approval. (Amazon unveiled its new drone at a conference recently.)
UPS is creating a new subsidiary, UPS Flight Forward, to oversee its drone operations. The recently incorporated spinoff could receive Part 135 certification as early as this year, UPS predicts. The certification, when granted, will allow application for FAA-approved flight operations beyond line of sight, at night, and without limit to the number of drones or operators in command. Such drone operations are highly restricted in the US and approved only by exception.
UPS’s experience with drone delivery is limited to a pilot program with autonomous delivery drone startup Matternet, which uses drones to deliver medical supplies in North Carolina. The delivery giant also partnered with Zipline and vaccine nonprofit Gavi in 2016 to deliver blood samples to remote locations in Rwanda.
Despite predictions from tech moguls and CEOs about the skies eventually being full of package-bearing quadcopters, drone delivery is still in its nascent stages. Air space regulations present formidable hurdles for most companies that want to launch commercial services.
Morgan Stanley estimates that autonomous urban aircraft could become a $1.5 trillion industry by 2040. That includes everything from vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) aircraft, flying taxis, military unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), and delivery drones. But if delivery drones have shown us anything so far, it’s that getting people used to the idea of packages being shuttled back and forth overhead might not be easy: 54 percent of Americans polled in a 2017 Pew Research Center survey disapproved of drones flying near residential areas.
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