UPS received government approval to operate a nationwide drone airline, the company announced this week. The subsidiary—UPS Flight Forward—plans to expand its network of drone deliveries, but don't expect your neighborhood's brown trucks to replaced anytime soon.
With approval to both operate at night and to expand its fleet as it sees fit, UPS one-upped competitors such as Google parent Alphabet's Wing project, Amazon Air and Uber Eats, all of whom are looking to get into the drone delivery game, according to The Associated Press. Amazon Air, in particular, had hoped to begin home delivery this year.
The FAA certification UPS obtained allows for a nationwide drone delivery network, but it does not allow the logistics company to run delivery routes over populated areas because such certifications do not yet exist. The technology is still too new. Running delivery routes outside of the operator's line of site also remains off-limits barring individual route exemptions such as the one provided for the company's certification flight.
UPS has been running a pilot (Eds note: Pun intended) program on the WakeMed hospital campus in North Carolina, and it will expand that program to other campuses as its drones and operators continue to log hours. Down the road, UPS Flight Forward plans to build a dedicated operations center, obtain certifications for additional routes beyond the operator's visual line of sight, and expand beyond the healthcare industry.
The company is also looking to partner with more drone manufacturers. Part of its FAA authorization allows the company to fly drones with payloads exceeding 55 pounds, but the company says the hardware isn't quite there yet. Down the road, UPS Flight Forward would like to add drones capable of carrying large cargo between rural areas, effectively further decentralizing its distribution network.
"This is history in the making, and we aren’t done yet," said UPS CEO David Abney in the company's announcement. "Our technology is opening doors for UPS and solving problems in unique ways for our customers. 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."