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Drone Package Delivery Gets Closer to Taking Full Flight

UPS Flight Forward, a subsidiary of UPS Inc., has received the first U.S. government certification to operate a drone airline as activity in the space heats up.

Immediately after getting the nod from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), UPS Flight Forward launched the first drone delivery flight by any company at WakeMed’s hospital campus in Raleigh, N.C. That flight, using a Matternet M2 quadcopter, was flown under a government exemption allowing for a “beyond visual line of sight” operation, also a first in the U.S. for a regular revenue-generating delivery.

UPS will initially use its expanded drone delivery service to support hospital campuses around the country and to provide solutions for customers beyond those in the healthcare industry. UPS Flight Forward soon plans to expand drone transport to a variety of items for customers in many industries.

“This is history in the making and we aren’t done yet,” David Abney, CEO of UPS, said. “Our technology is opening doors for UPS and solving problems in unique ways for our customers. We will soon announce other steps to build out our infrastructure, expand services for healthcare customers and put drones to new uses in the future.”

The FAA’s Part 135 Standard certification has no limits on the size or scope of operations. It is the highest level of certification, one that no other company has attained.

UPS Flight Forward’s certificate permits the company to fly an unlimited number of drones with an unlimited number of remote operators in command. This enables UPS to scale its operations to meet customer demand.

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“UPS Flight Forward is benefitting from our knowledge as one of the world’s leading airlines,” Abney said. “The Flight Forward organization is building a full-scale drone operation based on the rigorous reliability, safety and control requirements of the FAA.”

UPS has tested drones for urgent commercial deliveries over water, funded and supported humanitarian deliveries in Africa, and tested non-urgent commercial residential delivery in rural areas with drones launched from a UPS package delivery vehicle.

UPS Flight Forward has plans to integrate drones into the UPS logistics network, creating potential for new applications in many industries. The company’s long-term plan includes rapid build-out of ground-based, detect-and-avoid technologies to verify drone safety, while enabling future service expansion; construction of a centralized operations control center, and partnerships with additional drone manufacturers to build new drones with varying cargo capacities.

FedEx and Walgreens said last month they were collaborating with Wing Aviation LLC, an Alphabet company, to launch a drone delivery service in Christiansburg, Va. The pilot program will demonstrate the many benefits of drone delivery by exploring methods to enhance last-mile delivery service, improve access to health care products and create a new avenue of growth for local businesses.

FedEx customers living in designated delivery zones will be able to receive their packages via drone during the trial, provided certain operating conditions are met. The companies will use the pilot program to further explore the future of retail delivery as part of their collaboration.

“Through our partnership with Wing, Walgreens will be the first U.S. retailer to offer an on-demand commercial drone delivery option in the U.S., allowing us to explore another omnichannel offering for the delivery of products and services our customers want and need,” Vish Sankaran, chief innovation officer of Walgreens Boots Alliance Inc., said.