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Is the World Ready for Drone Deliveries?

UPS gets the go-ahead to start using drones for delivery, but there’s still some work to do before unmanned aircraft become a delivery mode of choice for electronics buyers.

Picture this: Your company’s electronic assembly team has an urgent need for resistors and capacitors to get a batch of electric circuits put together. None of the raw materials are in stock, so you place an order for the items from a trusted supplier. Just two hours later an autonomous drone swoops in to save the day, dropping off the items at the loading dock and then flying off to handle another pressing matter for a different customer.

If this sounds far-fetched, or like something out of a modern-day science fiction movie, think again. While it may not be mainstream yet, drone delivery is beginning to take shape as suppliers, freight providers, and government bodies work to figure out a best path forward for the innovative delivery approach.

Pushing the Envelope

UPS is one company that’s pushing the envelope on drone deliveries. In October, its UPS Flight Forward subsidiary received the U.S. government’s first full Part 135 Standard certification to operate a drone airline.

According to a UPS press release, it will initially expand its drone delivery service further to support hospital campuses around the country, as well as to provide solutions for customers beyond those in the healthcare industry. In the future, UPS Flight Forward wants to be able to transport a variety of items for customers across numerous industries, and regularly fly drones beyond the operators’ visual line of sight.

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) awarded UPS Flight Forward the Part 135 Standard certification—an accomplishment that prompted an immediate launch of the first drone delivery flight by any company under Part 135 Standard 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” (BVLOS) operation, also a first in the U.S. for a regular revenue-generating delivery, UPS reports.

“This is history in the making, and we aren’t done yet,” said UPS’ David Abney in the press release. “Our technology is opening doors for UPS and solving problems in unique ways for our customers.” The company is now working on a full-scale drone operation based on the FAA’s rigorous reliability, safety, and control requirements.

Big Step Forward

The highest level of drone certification, the FAA’s Part 135 Standard certification has no limits on the size or scope of operations. UPS, for example, is permitted to fly an unlimited number of drones with an unlimited number of remote operators in command. The standard also permits the drone and cargo to exceed 55 lb and to fly at night.

“This is a big step forward in safely integrating unmanned aircraft systems into our airspace, expanding access to healthcare in North Carolina, and building on the success of the national UAS Integration Pilot Program to maintain American leadership in unmanned aviation,” said U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine L. Chao in the UPS press release.

Still More Work to Do

The question is, when will we start to see the sky buzzing with drones that are laden with boxes and on a mission to get the goods to their final destinations? It may be coming sooner than you think. Both Amazon.com Inc. and Uber Technologies Inc. are among those companies vying for FAA approvals to potentially transport food and small consumer goods to residential customers.

“Many of those firms have turned overseas to test preliminary delivery systems, citing accelerated regulatory action from Australia to Iceland to Switzerland,” Andy Pasztor reports in WSJ’s “UPS Gets FAA Nod for Widespread Drone Deliveries”.

Even with this momentum under their belts, the companies that want to start using drones have some legal hoops to jump through.But along with all other drone champions, the UPS initiative still faces major hurdles to rapid growth,” Pasztor points out, “until the FAA establishes industrywide rules allowing flights over urban areas and sets standards for remote identification of drones by law enforcement and air-traffic control.”

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