The Federal Aviation Administration has approved expanded drone operations by Sandy Springs-based UPS Flight Forward and Cartersville-based Phoenix Air, among the first such clearances granted by the agency.
UPS Flight Forward got FAA approval to deliver small packages with its Matternet M2 drone, with plans for operations in North Carolina, Florida, Ohio and “potentially other states.”
The package delivery giant’s drone subsidiary UPS Flight Forward has been conducting some operations under FAA approval since 2019.
The FAA approval will allow UPS Flight Forward to operate drones “beyond visual line of sight,” beyond the current practice of using visual observers along a route. UPS Flight Forward will now be able to control the drones remotely from an operations center in Fisherville, Kentucky, and use a ground-based surveillance system.
UPS Flight Forward, which is partnering with Collins Aerospace, said in a statement that it is “pleased to have approval for a key step” to establish “meaningful” operations beyond visual line of sight.
UPS Flight Forward told the FAA that drone delivery can reduce transit times, “has the potential to reduce accidents and miles driven,” and can help serve rural and hard-to-reach areas.
When the FAA took public comments on the proposals earlier this year, some parties expressed concerns, including the Air Line Pilots Association union, saying visual observers help to mitigate risk. The FAA cited data provided by UPS Flight Forward showing electronic systems provide “equal or greater level of safety.”
The FAA did include a number of conditions and limitations in its approval of the expanded UPS Flight Forward drone operations.
Last month, the FAA granted its first such authorization lo Phoenix Air Unmanned, the drone unit of air charter company Phoenix Air, based at the Cartersville-Bartow County Airport.
Phoenix Air Unmanned plans to operate its SwissDrones beyond visual line of sight for powerline and pipeline inspections and similar work. According to the FAA, unmanned aerial systems “offer a quieter, cleaner, cheaper option to manned aircraft” for such operations.
Phoenix Air Unmanned said the FAA approval will allow it to conduct those inspection and patrol flights under the same flight regulations as traditional aviation. That will allow the company to significantly expand its business, with inspection flights potentially extending more than 60 miles.
“This groundbreaking authorization allows us to conduct inspections and patrol for any utility in the country,” said Will Lovett, Phoenix Air Unmanned managing director in a written statement.
The FAA took public comments earlier this year on requests for approval from Phoenix Air Unmanned, UPS Flight Forward, uAvionix and Zipline. On Wednesday, it also authorized uAvionix, based in Montana and Virginia, to test its detect and avoid technology. The last request, from drone delivery company Zipline, is still under review.