This week the FAA granted the broadest approval for drone delivery they have ever issued to Flight Forward, a subsidiary of the United Parcel Service (UPS).
The approval comes in the form of a Part 135 certification, which gives Flight Forward the permission to operate a “drone airline.” Part 135 certification is the same certification smaller airlines, such as charter airlines, receive from the FAA and the U.S. Department of Transportation in order to operate.
The company demonstrated that its operations met the FAA’s rigorous safety requirements to qualify for an air carrier certificate. This is based on extensive data and documentation, as well as test flights.
Alphabet Inc.’s Wing (originally Project Wing) was the first drone company ever to receive a Part 135 certification back in April of this year. However, Wing’s certification is limited in scope.
While Wing received a Singe Pilot Part 135, UPS has received the much broader Standard Part 135.
Note: There are four different types of Part 135 certification that a company can receive. We cover all four below, along with the FAA’s new process for providing drone delivery companies permission to operate.
So what’s the difference between Wing’s certification and Flight Forward’s certification?
While a Part 135 Single Pilot certificate holder can only use a single pilot, a Part 135 Standard certificate holder has no limits on the size or scope of its operations (although it must be granted authorization for each type of operation it wants to conduct).
That’s a huge difference.
While UPS can launch a fleet of drones, or several fleets throughout the U.S., Wing can only work with a single pilot.
This means limitations not just to the size of Wing’s operations but also to their location since, ideally, you wouldn’t have a delivery service operating a few days a week in one area, then a few days a week elsewhere. While it’s a great feather in Wing’s cap, it’s just not the kind of certificate you can build a wide-scale delivery business on.
To make all of this even more concrete, here are some of the things Flight Forward can do with its new Part 135 Standard certification:
- Operate a fleet of delivery drones
- Carry cargo over 55 pounds
- Fly at night without obtaining a specific Part 107.29 waiver*
- Fly BVLOS without obtaining a specific Part 107 waiver*
For now, Flight Forward only has approval to operate in suburban and rural regions (i.e., they can’t fly in crowded cities), but otherwise there are “no limits on the size or scope” of its operations.
*Wing also has these permissions as part of their Part 135 Single Pilot certification. It’s unclear right now if Wing has permission to carry cargo over 55 pounds.
How UPS Got Its Part 135
Flight Forward’s milestone certification is the result of careful, step-by-step testing along with their partner Matternet.
Back in April, UPS and Matternet were approved by the FAA to fly what UPS called the first “routine revenue” flights ever on the Wakemed hospital campus in Raleigh, North Carolina. This new air carrier certification can be seen as an outgrowth of that approval.
All of this progress on the drone delivery front is the result of testing done within the bounds of the UAS Integration Pilot Program (UAS IPP), a federal program created to allow state and local governments to test drone operations generally prohibited by the FAA’s Part 107 rules (such as flying at night, over people, or BVLOS).
Through its involvement in the UAS IPP, UPS has been testing drone deliveries of medical supplies in Raleigh, North Carolina for some time now. Flights have focused on the delivery of blood and medical samples for lab work.
In the FAA’s announcement about Flight Forward’s new air carrier certification, they emphasized that the Part 135 certificate for UPS had been approved “Through the . . . UAS Integration Pilot Program (IPP).”
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 UAS Integration Pilot Program to maintain American leadership in unmanned aviation.
– U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine L. Chao.
No doubt the FAA and the Department of Transportation want to draw attention to the UAS IPP’s success, and rightly so.
Through the program we have already seen a steady wave of new approvals granted for drone delivery, as well as other types of drone operations, such as using BVLOS for inspections and environmental monitoring.
Flight Forward’s Next Steps
Immediately after receiving its Part 135 certification last Friday, Flight Forward launched its first drone delivery at the WakeMed hospital campus.
The flight was made using the Matternet M2 quadcopter and was flown BVLOS.
For the moment, Flight Forward plans to start a “drone airline business” and deliver packages by drone to hospital campuses around the U.S. Eventually it wants to expand drone deliveries into other commercial sectors in several other industries.
When the (FAA) regulations are complete we certainly believe there are residential opportunities and other delivery opportunities that will help supplement the incredible group of drivers we have all over the world.
– David Abney, CEO of UPS
Here are the goals UPS shared for Flight Forward in a recent statement:
- Expansion of the UPS Flight Forward delivery service to new hospitals and medical campuses around the country.
- Rapid build-out of ground-based, detect-and-avoid (DAA) technologies to verify drone safety, while enabling future service expansion.
- Construction of a centralized operations control center.
- Regular and frequent drone flights beyond the operator’s visual line of sight.
- Partnerships with additional drone manufacturers to build new drones with varying cargo capacities.
- Adding new services outside of the healthcare industry, including the transport of special commodities and other regulated goods.
The Part 135 Certification Process: The Only Way to Get Approval for Drone Delivery
According to the FAA, the only way a company can get approval to make drone deliveries is through the Part 135 certification process.
Part 135 certification is the only path for small drones to carry the property of another for compensation beyond visual line of sight.
Since Part 135 was originally designed for small air carriers, not drone companies, the FAA has adapted the Part 135 requirements for drone operations by granting exemptions to rules that don’t apply to drones, like the requirement to carry flight manuals on board the aircraft. (That would be pretty hard to do on an sUAS!)
The Part 135 certification process has five phases. The end result, assuming the application is approved, is one of four types of Part 135 certification:
- Single Pilot—the kind Wing has. A single-pilot operator is a certificate holder that is limited to using only one pilot for all part 135 operations.
- Single Pilot in Command. A Single Pilot in Command certificate is a limited part 135 certificate. It includes one pilot in command certificate holder and three second pilots in command. There are also limitations on the size of the aircraft and the scope of the operations.
- Basic Operator. A Basic Operator certificate is limited in the size and scope of their operations. Maximum of five pilots, including second in command. Maximum of five aircraft can be used in their operation.
- Standard—the kind UPS’ Flight Forward has. A Standard Operator holds a certificate with no limits on the size or scope of operations. However, the operator must be granted authorization for each type of operation they want to conduct.
Flight Forward and Wing may not be the only companies to hold Part 135 certificates for long. The FAA is currently working on six Part 135 air carrier certificate applications, all submitted by UAS IPP partner companies.
What do you think—will Flight Forward’s Part 135 Standard certification just be the first in a wave of similar certifications, or will they dominate drone deliveries for the foreseeable future? Chime in on this thread in the UAV Coach community forum to share your thoughts.