UPS sees a way forward for drone delivery and is going for it

If we had a dime for every time a company proclaimed the launch of a new drone delivery service because they tied a pizza or some other foodstuff to a tether and hit the “fly” button, we’d probably have around $1.20 by now.

The fact is, strict regulations laid down by the the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) mean that for the time being, full-fledged drone delivery services — the kind proposed by Amazon and Alphabet’s Wing for delivering orders to customers’ homes — are still a ways off in the U.S. That’s because the FAA wants better safety assurances regarding things like night flights or letting drones fly over populated areas or beyond the operator’s line of sight.

But a growing number of companies are managing to keep within the current rules, enabling them to make gradual advances toward launching delivery services using the flying machines.

Take shipping giant UPS. In March 2019, it launched a trial service with drone company Matternet to deliver medical samples between healthcare facilities located in Raleigh, North Carolina. Several years ago, it also floated the interesting idea of fitting a drone delivery system to its vans so that drones and drivers could work together to increase delivery speeds.

UPS Flight Forward

Aiming to build on its Raleigh service, UPS this week announced the launch of a new drone subsidiary called UPS Flight Forward. The new unit has already applied to the FAA for Part 135 air carrier certification, which, if granted, will give it more freedom in the skies, and pave the way for expansion to other U.S. healthcare networks that have expressed an interest in drone delivery services similar to the one in Raleigh.

Specifically, Part 135 certification would enable UPS to fly its drones at night, over people, and beyond the operator’s line of sight. In April 2019, Alphabet’s Wing became the first drone company to receive such certification, allowing it to set up drone delivery tests for selected residents in a couple of towns in Virginia.

For UPS, the certification would allow it to expand its work with Matternet, launching drone delivery services at more hospitals to transport medical samples across sprawling campuses, according to a Cnet report. It can take several hours to deliver the samples using ground couriers, but the drones can reduce delivery time to a matter of minutes, the company said.

Whereas Amazon’s proposed drone delivery service is focused on fulfilling orders made on its website, and Wing’s is focused on delivering snacks and other small items from local businesses, UPS wants to initially concentrate on more critical deliveries such as emergency medical supplies, or even parts for broken factory machinery to get a production line up and running again.

With the drone logistics and transportation market expected to be worth $29 billion by 2027, more and more companies are investing heavily in the sector for a piece of the pie. The launch of UPS Flight Forward sees the company taking its own strategy to the next level as it seeks to be a major player in a market set to expand rapidly as advances in drone technology allow the FAA to gradually relax its regulations.

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