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FAA grants first drone airline approval for UPS

Hospitals will soon have greater access to drone deliveries of healthcare supplies from UPS Flight Forward now that the Atlanta-based company gained the first-ever drone airline certificated from the US Federal Aviation Administration.

The agency awarded Part 135 certification to operate as a drone delivery airline on 27 September, giving Flight Forward permission to fly multiple drones beyond line of sight during revenue deliveries. Removing such limits on a drone operator “is a big step forward in safely integrating unmanned aircraft systems into our airspace," US secretary of transportation Elaine Chao says in a press release on 1 October.

Flight Forward in March began daily revenue deliveries of blood for transfusions, as well as medical samples for lab work on drones built by California-based Matternet to WakeMed’s flagship hospital in North Carolina. The FAA and the North Carolina Department of Transportation monitored these flights in Raleigh to assess their safety as part of the federal Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration Pilot Program.

"The company demonstrated that its operations met the FAA’s rigorous safety requirements to qualify for an air carrier certificate," the department said in its press release.

Google Wing, owned by parent company Alphabet – also has Part 135 certification but its operation is limited to Christiansburg, Virginia.

The agency has faced pressure from Congress and industry to create regulations that enable businesses interested in drone delivery to begin safe operations with consideration for public noise and other airspace traffic.

Detect and avoid technology for the drones to navigate airspace is among the next steps for Flight Forward, UPS chief executive David Abney says in a statement.

“Our technology is opening doors for UPS and solving problems in unique ways for our customers," Abney says. "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.”

The Matternet-built M2 quadcopters fly deliveries along predetermined flight paths. Each have four propellers attached to four arms sticking out from the center of the aircraft. Small metal landing gear bars jut out from the bottom of an M2, where there is an arch of open space in the belly to carry a package weighing 2.25 kilogrammes (5 pounds). The M2 each have a lithium ion battery and can fly around 12.5 miles (20 kilometres) before they need to be recharged.

Boeing Horizon X is among the investors in Matternet.

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