UPS drone airline gets OK from US government to launch

Ahead of its rivals, Flight Forward receives approval for package deliveries on university and hospital campuses.

    UPS Flight Forward delivery drones could be coming soon to all sorts of contained campuses across the United States [UPS]
    UPS Flight Forward delivery drones could be coming soon to all sorts of contained campuses across the United States [UPS]

    United Parcel Service Inc on Tuesday said it won the United States government's first full approval to operate a drone airline, which gave it a lead in the nascent drone delivery business over rivals Amazon.com Inc and Alphabet Inc.

    The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) granted UPS' drone subsidiary - called Flight Forward - a Part 135 Standard certification on Friday.

    The company said the certificate allows it to expand its delivery service in campus settings such as hospitals and universities, but added that deliveries to households are years away.

    The certification allows UPS pilots to fly drones beyond their line of sight and opens the door for the delivery company to expand Flight Forward.

    The fledgling unit is immediately doubling the number of drone flights it does for its flagship customer, WakeMed Health & Hospitals in Raleigh, North Carolina.

    "We'll easily get to 20-plus flights per day, per drone," said Scott Price, UPS's chief strategy and transformation officer.

    "It's a business, it's not a prototype or a test," Price said of Flight Forward, which is paid to ferry blood and tissue samples to WakeMed's central laboratory from points around its main hospital campus.

    'Hundreds of campuses'

    UPS said its latest certification clears the way for Flight Forward to add other campus delivery projects without seeking government approvals for each one.

    "There are hundreds of campuses in the United States," said Price, who added that UPS is eyeing drone deliveries on medical, corporate and academic campuses as it builds Flight Forward.

    "This is a big step forward in safely integrating unmanned aircraft systems into our airspace," US Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao said in a statement.

    With the new FAA approval, UPS Flight Forward pilots may now operate multiple drones under one certificate.

    Earlier this year, Alphabet's Wing, the sister unit of search engine Google, was the first company to get US air carrier certification for a single-pilot drone operation. It is testing home deliveries in a rural area around Blacksburg, Virginia.

    Amazon, known for its splashy drone delivery tests, has also won certifications to test its drones.

    The FAA is writing rules for drone operations - including guidelines for sharing airspace with passenger planes and for flying over populated areas.

    Residential deliveries, Price said, are "years out".

    SOURCE: Reuters news agency