ChainMail | A Drone Delivery Milestone

Firms win FAA OK to drop line-of-sight requirement

ChainMail | A Drone Delivery Milestone

Drone delivery sure looks like it’s taking flight as a commercial business.

On Sept. 6, drone technology firm Matternet via partner UPS Flight Forward received FAA approval to broaden operations. Specifically, the government gave UPS permission to fly Matternet delivery drones beyond the visual line of sight (BVLOS), meaning the companies no longer need to position human observers along flight paths.

The FAA later gave similar permission to drone operator Zipline, which joins several firms in achieving this milestone.

Eliminating the human observer requirement streamlines operations, reduces costs, and advances the U.S. government’s commitment to support a future in which home delivery by drone becomes a common element of the consumer supply chain.

“For more than a decade, even the most advanced long-range drone deliveries in the U.S. required visual observers, stationed on the ground along a route, to watch the sky during delivery,” Zipline said in a statement. “This historic decision will help enable broad integration of autonomous aircraft into the U.S. national airspace and make commercial drone delivery scalable and affordable.”

Zipline CEO Keller Rinaudo Cliffton said the company can expand from serving a few thousand homes to serving hundreds of thousands of homes annually. The company said it is working with healthcare, retail, and food industry clients, including OhioHealth, GNC, and a Seattle pizza chain.

Matternet agreed that FAA approval to fly beyond line of sight will play a significant role in scaling drone delivery. “This is another step in our journey to make drone delivery a common part of everyday life,” Andreas Raptopoulos, Matternet’s founder and CEO, said in a statement.

Matternet said it is focused on delivering medical items, including blood samples and other medical specimens, infusion kits, vaccines, and prescription medicine. The company said it is planning to expand into several e-commerce markets as well.

With these early FAA approvals, the government is setting precedents that will make it easier to give permission to more competitors.

“The FAA referred to this groundbreaking exemption as a template that can be used by other companies to also achieve BVLOS, once they have deployed and gained approval for their own ground-based detection equipment,” Matternet told me in an email. “For UPS Flight Forward and Matternet, this represents a leap forward in capability and scalability for regular delivery operations, which is well beyond the experimental stage.”

Brandon Roberts, an FAA official, signaled the government’s eagerness to keep the momentum going. “We really do want to move faster,” Roberts said at an industry conference.

Read the complete Issue 45 of ChainMail here.

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