Delivery Drones Within the U.S. and an FAA Proposal That Could Make it That Much Easier

There is no doubt that unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), i.e. drone aircraft or drones, are an increasingly popular and strangely normal aspect of our everyday lives in 2020. And how could they not be? When there is a product that can appeal to pretty much any and every one – from farmers wanting to efficiently monitor their crops, to those of us just looking to take the perfect selfie – it’s going to be explosively popular. Even military forces around the world are getting in on the action. The innovative uses for drones seem borderline infinite, and there is no questioning their utility even when applied in ways that may come as a surprise. 

One use that many people are likely familiar with is that of commercial delivery. A number of companies within the United States have been eyeing the drone delivery market for some time now, particularly UPS and Alphabet’s Wing. Typically, the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) rules governing drone flight in the United States require, among other things, that the drone remain in the operator’s line of sight for the entirety of the flight. This generally goes for both hobbyists and commercial operators. However, the FAA, in an effort to encourage and not stifle innovation, created the Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Integration Pilot Program (IPP).

To promote continued technological innovation and to ensure the global leadership of the United States in this emerging industry, the regulatory framework for UAS operations must be sufficiently flexible to keep pace with the advancement of UAS technology, while balancing the vital Federal roles in protecting privacy and civil liberties; mitigating risks to national security and homeland security; and protecting the safety of the American public, critical infrastructure, and the Nation’s airspace.

Presidential Memorandum for the Secretary of Transportation, Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration Pilot Program

Additionally, the FAA has in place one particular process that allows operators to obtain exemption from specific rules governing drone flight: Part 135 certification process. All IPP participants go through the Part 135 certification process, including those companies looking to dive into the package delivery market. Currently, “Part 135 certification is the only path for small drones to carry the property of another for compensation beyond visual line of sight.” Both UPS and Alphabet’s Wing are IPP participants and have been granted Part 135 certificates, although not for the same type of operations – you can check out the four types operations for which operators can be granted a Part 135 certificate here.

It was announced on October 1, 2019 that UPS subsidiary UPS Flight Forward was awarded a Part 135 Standard certification, the first ever. Flight Forward, in partnership with drone manufacturer Matternet, started in and has continued to hone its operation model for drone delivery within the healthcare industry, with WakeMed Hospital in Raleigh, NC as the starting point. It has been reported that one goal of the program is to test delivery of healthcare necessities in area where roads may not be a viable option – think natural disasters. 

“This is history in the making, and we aren’t done yet. . . . 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.”

David Abney, UPS chief executive officer

Recently, the Flight Forward drone delivery service program has expanded its services to the University of California San Diego (USCD) Health system where the company’s drones will be used to transport things like blood samples and documents short distances between centers.

Interestingly enough, a proposed rule from the FAA was just recently (February 3, 2020) published in the Federal Register. The proposal, titled Type Certification of Unmanned Aircraft Systems, essentially wants to open the door to more companies who want to get involved in small-package delivery via drone fleets. This type of regulatory framework for delivery drones should work much in the same way that the type certification process operates for other aircraft, a model-by-model certification process that allows approved models to then operate throughout the US. If you feel particularly strongly about this, the FAA is accepting public comment on the proposed rule until March 4, 2020.

This seems to be just the tip of the iceberg of what needs to be and may soon be done to promote widespread use of and explosive growth within the commercial drone delivery world, but it is definitely a big step toward getting that goal off the ground – no pun intended. If nothing else, this change is a good example of how the law is attempting to keep up with innovations in technology and increases in demand for such services, and how policymakers are remaining flexible in their approaches.