UAS Drone Delivery Gets Off the Ground

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) announced that on September 27, it awarded a Part 135 Standard air carrier certification to the UPS drone subsidiary UPS Flight Forward, the first such certification awarded to an unmanned aircraft system (UAS or, more commonly, drone) delivery service.  This certification permits UPS Flight Forward to make deliveries using drones flying beyond visual line of sight. 

Although the FAA has had rules for commercial operation of small drones since 2016, these Part 107 rules explicitly do not apply to “air carrier operations,” meaning generally the transport of property over state borders.  Accordingly, to enable widespread drone delivery a company must complete the five phases of the FAA’s Part 135 certification process.  A Part 135 certification is the only way for UAS operators to "carry the property of another for compensation beyond visual line of sight."

This Part 135 Standard air carrier certification allows UPS Flight Forward to operate without a limit on the size or scope of its operations, though each type of operation requires authorization from the FAA.  The certification does not limit the company to carrying loads under 55 pounds, as operating under Part 107 would.  And it allows the company to fly drones at night, after attaching the requisite safety lights and complying with other regulations. 

The same day as receiving its certification, UPS delivered medical supplies on a hospital campus in Raleigh, NC beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS), making it the first revenue-generating flight to do so.  UPS’s immediate plans are to expand into deliveries for more hospital campuses around the country, and to "provide solutions for customers beyond those in the healthcare industry."

You might be thinking, "Didn't I already read about a company getting the first Part 135 certification for drone package delivery earlier this year?"  That's correct, but UPS breaks new ground in a couple of important ways.  Earlier this year, Wing Aviation, a subsidiary of Google's parent company Alphabet, obtained the nation's first Part 135 certificate for UAS air carrier operations.  However, Wing's authorization is a Single Pilot certificate, which enables operations only by the operator named in the certificate, and only for one drone flight at a time.  By contrast, UPS received a Standard air carrier certificate, which allows it to operate on a larger scale with as many operators and drone routes as it can get authorized.  For now, each concurrent drone flight must have a separate operator.  The FAA is also currently considering six Part 135 applications from IPP operators, as well as one Part 135 application from an FAA Partnership for Safety Plan (PSP) participant.

Even with the regulatory hurdles that remain for many drone operators, and the separate authorizations required for each UAS operation, UPS Flight Forward's Part 135 certification is a significant step toward allowing UAS commercial deliveries to expand beyond just test sites.  While, as we’ve noted previously, the FAA rulemaking to allow remotely identifying UAS operators is still delayed, it’s promising that the FAA has taken new steps with old processes in integrating UAS technology.  We may eventually get those drone-delivered burritos after all.


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