UPS wants to operate delivery drones under the same rules as a private jet service, hoping to carry health products over long distances between hospitals in the US.
The company applied to the US Federal Aviation Administration for Part 135 certification to operate commercial drone flights in the UPS network under a subsidiary business called UPS Flight Forward, it said on Sunday.
The subsidiary could receive the certification as early as this year, putting UPS on track to have one of the first fully certified, revenue-generating drone operations in the US, according to the parcel delivery company.
“UPS is committed to using technology to transform the way we do business,” said Scott Price, UPS chief transformation and strategy officer. “UPS’ formation of a drone delivery company and application to begin regular operations under this level of certification is historic for UPS and for the drone and logistics industries.”
When approved, the certification will open the way for drone flights beyond an operator’s visual line of sight and for flights both day and night, which are currently highly restricted in the US and approved only by exception.
“What we’re shooting for is getting to be a fully certified US drone operator with no special exemptions,” Bala Ganesh, vice president of UPS’s advanced technology group, told Bloomberg. “This is no longer testing or story boarding. That year is over. Now we’re moving to deployment of a fully sustained model.”
UPS has been involved in drone delivery system development for some time. In 2017, it successfully tested a drone that launches from the top of a delivery truck. The test was conducted in collaboration with drone-maker Workhorse.
On Sunday, UPS said that in contrast to more-limited FAA certifications for drone flights by other companies, UPS Flight Forward would operate under the FAA’s standard Part 135 certification. This legally certifies a company as a certified Air Carrier and Operator.
Alphabet’s Wing, a Google offshoot, was the first drone operator to receive Part 135 certification and other companies, including Uber Technologies and Amazon’s air division, are in pursuit, according to Bloomberg.
Wing won FAA permission to operate like an airline in April this year. The company said it plans to make small deliveries in rural Virginia later this year.
Currently, UPS operates specific drone healthcare deliveries under FAA Part 107 rules. The company is already earning revenue off the healthcare deliveries. In March, it initiated the FAA-sanctioned use of a drone for a delivery service in the US at WakeMed’s hospital and campus in Raleigh, North Carolina. In this programme, the company delivers medical samples via drones, supplementing a ground courier service. UPS said it intends to expand its drone delivery service to other hospitals or campus settings.
Mr Ganesh said by the end of 2020, UPS wants to be “fully scaled” for the healthcare sector.
“I’m sure the cost scale will go down over time and we’ll scale to other business applications,” he said.
Previously, The UPS Foundation and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, supported the expansion of a medical drone network into Ghana. The project involved using drones to make on-demand, emergency deliveries of high-priority products including emergency and vaccines, blood products and life-saving medications.
The programme is an expansion of a collaboration between The UPS Foundation, Gavi, and Zipline, which began in Rwanda in 2016 by supporting the government there in providing access to medical supplies in minutes rather than hours for millions of Rwandan citizens in remote communities.
There are major hurdles that remain before pilotless aircraft can fly routinely over populated areas or across long distances. The industry is grappling with how to create an air traffic management system for drones, and the US government wants an identification system to prevent rogue operators from becoming a security problem.