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Federal Aviation Administration Certifies UPS to Become First-ever Drone Airline.

ABSTRACT: FAA waives multiple restrictions permitting UPS to fly unlimited number of remote unmanned aircraft 24 hours a day by the most expansive Part 135 Certificate of Waiver ever issued.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issued the first-of-its-kind Part 135 certification to UPS subsidiary, UPS Flight Forward, Inc. (UPS).

The Part 135 certificate declares two core matters: (1) UPS is exempt from certain federal rules and regulations governing flight operations, and (2) UPS is explicitly authorized to perform certain flight operations otherwise prohibited by the FAA.

Specifically, the Part 135 certificate issued to the UPS subsidiary waives the following federal regulations:

14 CFR § 107.31, Visual line of sight aircraft operation, is waived to allow operation of the small unmanned aircraft (sUA) beyond the direct visual line of sight of the remote pilot in command (PIC) and any visual observer (VO) who is participating in the operation.

14 CFR § 107.33(b) and (c)(2), Visual observer, is waived to the extent necessary to allow operation of the small unmanned aircraft (sUA) when any VO who is participating in the operation may not be able see the unmanned aircraft in the manner specified in §107.31.

14 CFR § 107.39, Operations over people, is waived to allow sUA operations over people who are not direct participants, necessary for the safe operation of the small unmanned aircraft.

The certificate provides as authorized operations:

Small unmanned aircraft system (sUAS) operations for the purpose of 135 certification, beyond the visual line of sight of the remote pilot in command (PIC) and Visual Observer (VO), in lieu of visual line of sight (VLOS) and sUAS operations over human beings.

Notably, Amazon Air and Uber Eats have yet to secure Part 135 certification status. Until now, one or all of the above UPS exemptions limited Part 135 operators, including Google’s Wing Aviation LLC, which received only a waiver for a single pilot. 

While Part 135 certifications were already used for drone deliveries, UPS is using its certificate to go one step further to build out the first drone airline thanks to the far-reaching parameters of the waiver. UPS’s Part 135 certificate removes limits on the size and scope of the company’s potential drone operations. The company is now also exempt from the FAA rule that mandates that drones fly within the sight of the drone operator. In other words, the certificate allows UPS to fly an unlimited number of drones with an unlimited number of remote operators. The certificate also lifts previous restrictions on drone flights, permitting a drone and its cargo to exceed 55 pounds and to fly at night. This allows the company to develop new technology to create and use different drones.

In recent press statements, UPS CEO David Abney stated UPS worked closely with the Department of Transportation and the FAA to achieve this goal. Mr. Abney stated the certification will be used to accomplish multiple unmanned aircraft deliveries to multiple locations. UPS’s first focus will be a strategic healthcare initiative to expand its drone delivery service to further support hospital campuses throughout the United States. Abney stated the company has contemplated numerous campus-like settings for drone delivery and he believes the drone expansion will serve 20 or more locations during the rollout phase of the newly authorized drone deliveries. When regulations are complete, Abney expects expansion to residential delivery. 

In anticipation of Part 135 approval, but before receipt of the certificate, UPS began to develop a ground-based fleet of drones that help detect and avoid technology. UPS has also already begun to organize and develop technologies to create a consolidated control center that will allow the company to dispatch and operate drones from one consolidated area, thereby minimizing costs associated with infrastructure. 

The immediate concern of economists is that of American jobs while yet another industry inches closer towards automated functionality. The certificate and control center allow the company to facilitate its drone program with a fraction of the number of drone operators otherwise required by the FAA, and to avoid a need for jobs that would support additional drone operation locations. Economists speculate that as drone deliveries increase, reliance on UPS truck deliveries will decrease thereby eliminating at least some of the need for UPS drivers. 

As with all developments in this ever-evolving field, only time will tell what and how the legal and regulatory environment mesh with the actual uses that UPS finds for its drones.