The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) announced that the United Parcel Service (UPS) has won the first-of-its-kind air carrier and operator certification to an unmanned aircraft system (UAS, or drone) delivery company, UPS Flight Forward.
“This 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,” said U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine L. Chao in a press release.
UPS Flight Forward will be able to ship medical products and specimens in North Carolina across various hospital campuses. There are also plans to deliver consumer packages throughout the U.S., as well as gradually phase in routine night flights and heavier cargo limits, which are currently prohibited for most operators.
The company said it has already begun limited flying under the new certification.
“It just gives us a lot of capabilities,” said David Abney, UPS’ chairman and chief executive, in an interview with The Wall Street Journal. “We’re going to move ahead quickly, and expand rapidly. It’s not going to be a small operation.”
In fact, Abney predicted that the first phase could include 100 or more hospital complexes, with the ultimate goal to be the first drone operator to work on a sizable scale.
Last April, Wing, Google’s drone delivery unit, received approval to use drones to deliver packages. As a result, the division will be able to make drone deliveries in an area of southwest Virginia, but will only be able to operate during the day when the weather is clear. The drones won’t be able to fly above 400 feet, with one pilot able to operate up to five drones. Wing is part of a pilot program with the FAA to commercialize drone delivery.
“From our perspective, it’s more treating drones like manned aviation,” said Mark Blanks, director of the Virginia Tech Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership, at the time. “That accomplishment is huge, and I think it’s a preview of the future of where this is headed.”
Amazon and Uber are also hoping to win similar U.S. approvals so they can transport food and small consumer goods to customers.