UPS first to score wide-scale federal approval for drone package delivery

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UPS scores FAA approval for its drone delivery program.
Image: UPS

On Tuesday, UPS announced that it has become the first parcel service to receive broad Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) approval to deliver packages by drone. While some other carriers have been granted permission for small-scale tests, UPS is the first to score the ability to operate its fleet of delivery drones as an airline.

As part of the agreement, UPS can now fly at night and operate autonomously outside of a pilot’s range of sight. It can also now carry packages weighing more than 55 pounds. The approval is a landmark moment for the delivery industry. It will give the logistics giant a huge head-start on the competition.

Look to the Skies

As companies look for ways to simultaneously speed up their delivery times while also cutting costs, the skies seem like the most realistic option. That is ironic since the thought of packages being delivered by drones seems like something from a sci-fi show.

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Nonetheless, companies from Amazon to Google’s Wing Aviation unit are working hard on drone delivery solutions. However, until now, none of these operations has seen any major real-world testing.

Previously, The Burn-In reported that Google’s Wing scored the first FAA authorization for a series of test flights. However, UPS’ new authorization gives it full-fledged approval to deliver packages via drones whenever and however it wants to.

The company applied for the FAA’s approval back in July. Like all things related to the government, it took a while to get through the system. Even so, a three-month turnaround time for such an impressive series of permissions is well worth the wait.

Baby Steps

Even though UPS can now legally deliver packages via drone anywhere, the technology behind the system still has some flaws to work out.

UPS plans to start things slowly by delivering packages to hospitals and then branch out from there. CEO David Abney says, “When the (FAA) regulations are complete we certainly believe there are residential opportunities and other delivery opportunities that will help supplement the incredible group of drivers we have all over the world.”

If only those “incredible drivers” were valuable enough to get air conditioning in their trucks.

The company has previously been delivering packages via drone on behalf of WakeMed hospitals in North Carolina. Since the program began, the company’s drones have flown over 1000 test flights.

U.S. transportation secretary Elaine Chao said in a press release, “This is a big step in safety integrating unmanned aircraft systems into our airspace, expanding access to healthcare in North Carolina and building on success of the national (Unmanned Aircraft Systems) Integration Pilot Program to maintain American leadership in unmanned aviation.”

Indeed, UPS earning the FAA’s blessing is a big step forward. Barring any unforeseen circumstances, it should also pave the way for others like Amazon and Google to follow suit. Until then, however, UPS will have unfettered access to the skies and has a huge advantage on its competitors.