License to fly drones, event at night and beyond line of sight

Just a few years ago, many experts considered commercial drone flights by courier and express service providers nothing more than a PR stunt. Now drones regularly deliver parcels in the US – in fact, they even have the blessing of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

According to UPS Flight Forward, a subsidiary of the package delivery giant United Parcel Service (UPS), they are the first company ever to apply for and receive certification for the use of commercial drones in its network from the FAA, part of the US Department of Transportation.

Specifically, this refers to FAA regulation Part 135, which permits drone flights beyond the pilot’s line of sight, both during the day and at night. These flights are heavily regulated in the US for safety reasons and are only permitted in exceptional cases. “Establishing our new drone delivery company and the success of our application for certification for regular operation is of historic importance, not only for UPS, but for the drone and logistics industry as a whole,” says UPS Chief Transformation and Strategy Officer Scott Price. In contrast to the significantly more limited FAA certifications for drone flights held by other companies, UPS Flight Forward is now legally permitted to operate in the legal framework of a certified airline.

UPS is currently focusing on the delivery of urgent medical devices, blood or other medical products from hospitals and laboratories in the US. For example, on the campus of the WakeMed hospital in Raleigh, North Carolina, a so-called quadrocopter (with four downward propellers, hence the name Quadro) from the Swiss drone manufacturer Matternet complements the conventional courier services on the ground. Further hospitals in the surrounding area will be connected to the drone network in the coming months.

“WE’RE WRITING HISTORY RIGHT NOW, AND WE’RE NOT DONE YET. OUR TECHNOLOGY OPENS DOORS FOR UPS AND OFFERS UNIQUE SOLUTIONS TO OUR CUSTOMERS’ PROBLEMS. IN THE NEAR FUTURE, WE WILL ANNOUNCE FURTHER STEPS TO EXPAND OUR INFRASTRUCTURE AND EXTEND OUR SERVICES BEYOND THE HEALTHCARE SECTOR, AND THEREFORE USE DRONES IN COMPLETELY NEW WAYS.”

DAVID ABNEY, CHIEF EXECUTIVE OFFICER OF UPS

“WE’RE WRITING HISTORY RIGHT NOW, AND WE’RE NOT DONE YET. OUR TECHNOLOGY OPENS DOORS FOR UPS AND OFFERS UNIQUE SOLUTIONS TO OUR CUSTOMERS’ PROBLEMS. IN THE NEAR FUTURE, WE WILL ANNOUNCE FURTHER STEPS TO EXPAND OUR INFRASTRUCTURE AND EXTEND OUR SERVICES BEYOND THE HEALTHCARE SECTOR, AND THEREFORE USE DRONES IN COMPLETELY NEW WAYS.”

DAVID ABNEY, CHIEF EXECUTIVE OFFICER OF UPS

“We’re writing history, and we’re not done yet. Our technology opens doors for UPS and offers a unique solution to our customers’ problems.  This means we’ll be making our services available not only to users in the healthcare sector, but many other areas as well,” says David Abney, UPS Chief Executive Officer.

As part of the expansion of their drone business, they are planning to set up a large control center in the US. UPS also intends to partner with other drone manufacturers to deliver larger shipments in the future.

Of course, UPS Flight Forward is not the only company to adopt this strategy. The Google parent company Alphabet has now also received FAA approval for its subsidiary Wing to deliver commercial parcels by drone – albeit with restrictions. In contrast to UPS, they have not been awarded  “Standard” certification, but only a “Single Pilot Air Carrier” certificate, which requires a special pilot.

Since the end of October 2019, the residents of the city of Christiansburg in the US state of Virginia have been able to receive their deliveries by drone. Wing has initially been contracted by by the drugstore chain Walgreens, the local candy retailer Sugar Magnolia and the transport service provider Fedex, one of the largest UPS competitors, and the system will be open to other partners in general.

Customers place their orders with retailers via app. With Fedex deliveries, drones replace the delivery vans from the last transport center to the customer within a radius of around ten kilometers. Customers can specify the delivery date. As a prerequisite, the package to be delivered must of course be of suitable dimensions and weight (maximum 1.5 kilos) to be transported by drone. The limits on the range of products as a result are already taken into account in the Wing app.

“ESTABLISHING OUR NEW DRONE SUPPLIER COMPANY AND THE SUCCESS OF OUR APPLICATION FOR CERTIFICATION FOR REGULAR OPERATION IS OF HISTORIC IMPORTANCE NOT ONLY FOR UPS, BUT FOR THE DRONE AND LOGISTICS INDUSTRY AS A WHOLE.”

SCOTT PRICE, CHIEF TRANSFORMATION AND STRATEGY OFFICER AT UPS

“ESTABLISHING OUR NEW DRONE SUPPLIER COMPANY AND THE SUCCESS OF OUR APPLICATION FOR CERTIFICATION FOR REGULAR OPERATION IS OF HISTORIC IMPORTANCE NOT ONLY FOR UPS, BUT FOR THE DRONE AND LOGISTICS INDUSTRY AS A WHOLE.”

SCOTT PRICE, CHIEF TRANSFORMATION AND STRATEGY OFFICER AT UPS

The drones used differ significantly in their technology from the UPS devices – they more closely resemble an aircraft than a helicopter. They have a wingspan of one meter, weigh almost five kilos and reach high speeds of up to 110 kilometers per hour.

Once the preselected delivery point on the recipient’s property is reached, the delivery is roped down and automatically released on the ground, and the recipient then receives a notification on their app.

Of course, this development does not leave the mail order company Amazon unaffected – they have also submitted an application to the FAA in order to enter the airborne supply business as soon as possible. Even if Amazon is not the first in this case and has had to let UPS and Wing take the lead, there is already a name – “Prime Air”.

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Text by Behrend Oldenburg
Videos and photos: UPS, Wing

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