By Anthony DiNota, Steve Douglas and Dave Marcontell
This article first appeared in Forbes on October 7, 2019.
The drone delivery industry took a step forward at the beginning of October, but it remains several steps away from becoming a commercial-scale enterprise. While the Federal Aviation Administration granted UPS air carrier certification with fewer restrictions than it granted Alphabet’s Project Wing in April, the parcel delivery giant will still be limited essentially to rural areas and hospital campuses for the foreseeable future.
This is not to downplay the significance of the FAA approvals. They mark a new receptivity on the part of the agency to drone delivery in the United States and progress that suggests the world may see full-scale commercial delivery drones in perhaps a couple of years.
But the Part 135 certification that grants air carrier status only gets companies part way down the road. Like all innovations that pose a risk to life and property, drone technology has several problems to solve before it can be incorporated into the global economy and airspace of nations around the world. First and foremost, whether moving people or things, the drone equipment will need to prove itself airworthy—that is, safe for flight—and be able to demonstrate long-term reliability before getting “Type Certified” by the FAA and national airworthiness regulators in other countries. This represents the second and final step before large-scale commercial operations can commence.
Drones are already proving to be huge logistical problem-solvers in less populated areas
Ahead of drones being permitted to fly over populated areas or pose any kind of risk to the public or infrastructure, operators must demonstrate to regulators reliability performance similar to that required for commercial aircraft. In commercial aviation, a critical system failure is tolerated only once in one billion hours of flight, a very high bar. Even sophisticated unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) don’t come close to that number—in fact, they are several orders of magnitude below it.
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