FAA Certifies UPS to Operate Nation’s First Drone-Delivery Airline


The company’s subsidiary will expand its unmanned aircraft operation to transport potentially life-saving medical supplies.

A recently formed subsidiary of package-delivery giant United Parcel Services is set to operate a national drone airline system that’s unlimited in size and scope, after the Federal Aviation Administration issued the first-ever certification to do so.

According to announcements unveiled this week, UPS Flight Forward Inc. is the inaugural company to be issued the FAA’s Part 135 Standard certification—granting it the opportunity to expand its current network of Matternet unmanned aircrafts that transport medical items around one WakeMed campus in North Carolina into a delivery operation that reaches hospitals and health care facilities across the United States. 

“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 [Unmanned Aircraft System] Integration Pilot Program to maintain American leadership in unmanned aviation,” Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao said in a statement.    

UPS announced that it stood up the subsidiary in late July and subsequently launched its application to be certified by the FAA to be one of the earliest operators of a revenue-generating drone operation network. The specific certification is highly restricted partly because it allows for the drones to fly outside of their operators’ visual line of sight and during the day or night—exceptions to FAA’s usual drone regulations. It also enables the company to pilot many aircrafts at once, each equipped with cargo that can exceed 55 pounds.

Through the FAA’s UAS Integration Pilot Program, which intends to bring together stakeholders across many sectors to accelerate a new layer of low-altitude transportation, UPS Flight Forward then partnered with the North Carolina Transportation Department to supplement ground courier services by implementing drones to support the delivery of medical items across a hospital campus in Raleigh. 

“The flights have focused on the delivery of blood for potentially life-saving transfusions, as well as other medical samples for lab work,” FAA officials noted. 

UPS already operates in the low-altitude space, having deployed a variety unmanned aircraft deliveries of non-urgent commercial items in rural areas via drones that take off from UPS package delivery cars and by also providing input to the government on their considerations around regulations. But with the new certification, the company plans to propel its commercial drone use into an integrated nationwide network. 

“The FAA’s Part 135 Standard certification has no limits on the size or scope of operations,” officials said in a statement. “UPS Flight Forward’s certificate permits the company to fly an unlimited number of drones with an unlimited number of remote operators in command.”

Going forward, the company plans to construct a centralized operation control center to support its services, build out detect-and-avoid drone safety capabilities, partner with other manufacturers to boost its cargo-carrying capabilities, and eventually transport other items outside of the health care ecosystem. 

“This is history in the making, and we aren’t done yet,” David Abney, the CEO of UPS said.