- UPS is launching a new commercial, unmanned drone delivery subsidiary, Flight Forward Inc., and applying for FAA approval to scale it across its national delivery networks, according to a press release.
- The company is requesting Part 135 FAA certification which legally designates a commercial entity as a certified Air Carrier and Operator in addition to removing other stringent operational restrictions such as bans on nighttime flights and requirements that drones stay within the line of sight of the operator. Currently, this certification has only been granted to one other drone service, Alphabet's Wing earlier this year. Amazon and Uber both have certification requests pending with the agency.
- Currently, UPS operates multiple drone pilot programs under FAA Part 107 rules which govern non-commercial, small-scale flights and must be conducted within a pilot's line of sight, during the day, not over any occupied areas and under multiple other restrictions.
It is unclear how long the UPS application and approval process will take, but Chief Sales and Solutions Officer Kate Gutman expressed confidence the carrier will be granted the certification on UPS's Wednesday morning earnings call.
The FAA declined to comment on the announcement saying it does not share information on applicant reviews. However, the difference between UPS current Part 107 certification and the Part 135 certification it's seeking is significant. The most critical, in addition to those mentioned above, is the fact that UPS is currently unable to charge for deliveries under Part 107 as it technically isn't a licensed "commercial operator."
Today, UPS operates drones manufactured by Matternet (also a partner in the Flight Forward initiative) in pilot programs to deliver medical samples and supplies across a hospital system in Raleigh, North Carolina, and temperature-controlled vaccines between islands in the Bahamas. According to a press release, "Part 135 certification will pave the way for service expansions to several other U.S. healthcare networks that have expressed interest in similar services."
Meanwhile, Alphabet's Wing, currently the only FAA Part 135-certified commercial drone delivery operator in the country, is ramping up to begin deliveries of consumer goods in communities in rural Virginia. According to a Bloomberg report, Wing's application was approved only after it "create[d] extensive manuals, training routines and a safety hierarchy" similar to that of a conventional airline. However, the company is still not allowed to fly over crowds and urban areas which restrict its operations for now, though the company believes the certification will enable it to apply for approval to operate in more areas in the future.
Despite the confidence expressed by UPS, the FAA has been slow to grant the Part 135 certifications as the agency is currently grappling with how to best adapt its current rules for full-scale commercial drone operations. Currently, it has a test program underway and a center of excellence dedicated to exploring the impact of unmanned aerial vehicles on aviation and civilian safety in an effort to retool and streamline the certification process.