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100219-USP-Flight-Forward-Drone-work.png Photo: UPS
A technician works on a UPS Flight Forward drone.

UPS Flight Forward gets FAA approval to start drone airline

Carrier has plans to expand drone delivery to more hospitals and find other goods to transport by unmanned aircraft.

After a blessing from the Federal Aviation Administration, UPS’ Flight Forward division can start a drone airline business that would make the largest for-hire carrier in North America even bigger.

UPS plans to initially expand its drone delivery service further to support hospital campuses around the country, which it has found success in a pilot program at a North Carolina hospital. The company also plans to offer solutions for customers beyond those in the health care industry. 

UPS Flight Forward’s future plans include transporting a variety of items for customers in many industries and regularly flying drones beyond the operators’ visual line of sight.

The FAA awarded UPS Flight Forward a Part 135 Standard certification on Sept. 27. The UPS subsidiary immediately launched the first drone delivery flight by any company under Part 135 Standard at WakeMed’s hospital campus in Raleigh, NC. That flight, using a Matternet M2 quadcopter, was flown under a government exemption allowing for a “beyond visual line of sight” (BVLOS) operation, also a first in the U.S. for revenue-generating delivery service.

“This is a big step forward in safely integrating unmanned aircraft systems into our airspace, expanding access to health care 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 said in a statement.

This Part 135 certificate allows UPS to perform revenue-generating package delivery activities within federal regulations. UPS Flight Forward may now operate multiple drones under one certificate. The FAA said that UPS has proven usefulness for safe drone delivery in health care operations, where the shortest time in transit can improve efficiency and help health care professionals serve their patients better. 

Earlier this year, UPS partnered with drone-maker Matternet to launch its health care delivery service on the WakeMed campus. The Unmanned Aircraft System Integration Pilot Program is overseen by the FAA and North Carolina Department of Transportation.

“Using drones to bring blood and other diagnostic specimens from medical facilities to central labs will improve transport efficiencies like never before," Chris Cassidy, UPS president of global health care, said in March. "And with fewer vehicles on the road, we’ll generate less environmental impact.”

UPS Flight Forward has been transporting blood and medical samples from outlying facilities to the labs within the WakeMed hospital network. The drone system "replaces the inefficient and time-consuming ground courier service used currently with a much more efficient and timely unmanned aircraft service," according to a UPS petition to expand its drone business that was filed this summer. "This provides test results and diagnosis to doctors more rapidly, leading to more timely treatment, which in turn improves the patient's health and overall experience."

In the current WakeMed program, a medical professional loads a secure drone container with a medical sample or specimen, such as a blood sample, at one of WakeMed’s nearby facilities. The drone flies along a predetermined flight path, monitored by a trained Remote Pilot-in-Command (RPIC), to a fixed landing pad at WakeMed’s main hospital and central pathology lab.

WakeMed had been using ground courier services to transport samples between a satellite facility and the main campus for testing. Because the courier travels on a "batch processing" schedule, it would cause the lab to be overrun with samples when the courier arrives, leading to inefficiencies and delays of patients' diagnosis and treatment.

UPS Airlines currently operates a fleet of 250 aircraft, which the company says is one of the safest airlines in the world. That fleet now has the government's permission to grow with unmanned aircraft.

With its Part 135 Standard certification, UPS is ready to build on this application and expand to a variety of critical-care or lifesaving applications, the company said in news release. “This is history in the making, and we aren’t done yet,” said David Abney, UPS chief executive officer. “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 health care customers and put drones to new uses in the future.”

UPS Flight Forward’s FAA Part 135 Standard certification is unlimited in the size or scope of operations and is the highest level of certification. UPS is the first company to attain it. The certificate permits the UPS to fly an unlimited number of drones with an unlimited number of remote operators in command. This will enable UPS to scale its operations to meet customer demand. Part 135 Standard also permits the drone and cargo to exceed 55 pounds and fly at night, previous restrictions governing earlier UPS flights.


A medical sample is secured on the UPS drone.

“UPS Flight Forward is benefitting from our knowledge as one of the world’s leading airlines. The Flight Forward organization is building a full-scale drone operation based on the rigorous reliability, safety, and control requirements of the FAA,” Abney said.

UPS shared some of its longterm plans for its Flight Foward business thanks to the FAA approval:

  • 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 health care industry, including the transport of special commodities and other regulated goods.


UPS has been testing drone delivery for other uses, such as urgent commercial deliveries over water, humanitarian deliveries in Africa, and non-urgent commercial residential delivery in rural areas with drones launched from a UPS package delivery car.

A UPS senior executive has served since 2017 as one of a select group of corporate advisors on the FAA’s drone advisory committee as the company has been sharing its test results with the government. The FAA is still trying to establish finalized rules for safe drone operations.

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