UPS has won government approval to operate a nationwide fleet of drones, which will let the company expand deliveries on hospital campuses and move it one step closer to making deliveries to consumers.
Many regulatory obstacles remain, however, before UPS — or other operators who are testing drones — can fill the sky over cities and suburbs with drones carrying goods to people’s doorsteps.
United Parcel Service Inc. said Tuesday that its drone subsidiary was awarded an airline certificate last week by the Federal Aviation Administration, the first U.S. company to get such a broad approval.
Even before getting that designation, UPS Flight Forward, as the subsidiary is called, has operated more than 1,000 flights at WakeMed’s hospital campus in Raleigh, North Carolina.
The designation removes limits on the size of the company’s potential drone operation. Flight Forward can fly an unlimited number of drones, a key step toward expanding the operation. It can also fly drones at night, which the company plans to do after installing the necessary colored warning lights on each machine.
However, UPS still faces severe restrictions before it can run a large commercial operation with drones.
For example, drones won’t be allowed to fly beyond the sight of the operator without an FAA exemption for each route. Also, each flight will need a separate operator. Scott Price, the company’s chief strategy officer, said UPS will eventually apply for FAA permission to have a single operator fly multiple drones at the same time.
The airline certificate lets UPS fly drones carrying more than 55 pounds, “but we’re not comfortable we have the hardware for that yet,” Price said in an interview.
Operations will be limited to campus-like settings because FAA has not yet written regulations to allow commercial drone flights over populated areas.
Price said UPS is eyeing “hundreds” of campuses in the U.S., including hospitals, colleges and office complexes.