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COVID-19 Drone Use Cases May Hasten Regulatory Approvals

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by Patrick J. Paul

As the Coronavirus pandemic continues its spread across the globe, the case for drone delivery is rapidly gaining international attention and consequently may have regulatory approval fast-tracked.

In China, drone delivery systems previously utilized for residential mail delivery were re-purposed in the medical supplies field to assist hospitals’ response to the coronavirus.

In Canada, one company, Drone Delivery Canada, sees multiple COVID-19 related drone delivery applications including those designed to: limit person-to-person contact; bring needed medical and pharmaceutical supplies to remote, rural and suburban communities; and transport blood samples to laboratories for testing and deliver other relevant supplies.

In the U.S., the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulates drones.  Drone users must obtain FAA waivers to conduct certain drone-related activities, including flying at night, over people, beyond visual line of sight and at higher altitudes.

On March 25, UPS Flight Forward, Inc., a participant in the FAA’s Integration Pilot Program (IPP), only months after becoming the first company to receive a Standard Part 135 air carrier certificate from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to operate a drone aircraft, announced a collaboration with the German drone manufacturer Wingcopter, which builds electric vertical take-off and landing (VTOL), to fast-track U.S. drone delivery operations.

As we reported in October, UPS is the first company with this certification.  With this certification, UPS Flight Forward drones can fly:

  • Beyond the drone operator’s line of sight,
  • Over people,
  • With cargo in excess of 55 pounds, and
  • At night

The FAA is currently working on six additional Part 135 air carrier certificate applications that have been submitted by IPP operators.

On March 24, North Dakota Senator Senator John Hoeven, asked the FAA to allow the use of drones to deliver supplies to areas in urgent need.  Noting that “the fight against COVID–19 requires as much ingenuity and creativity as we can muster,” Senator Hoeven asked the FAA “to waive certain regulations and enable critical drone deliveries.”

As the challenges grow, creative responses to manage the COVID-19 crisis may result in an accelerated approval path for the drone delivery industry