The Four Drone Programs Creating the Aerial Delivery Industry

May 02, 2019 by John O'Dell

Fears of flocks of noisily buzzing drones descending on residential neighborhoods for doorstep delivery of packages often overshadow the potential benefits the drone-delivery industry might bring.

That will be changing soon for residents in several areas of the country as a handful of broad-scale aerial-delivery programs begin under an FAA waiver allowing drone flights where none have gone before.

The three-year program is called the Unmanned Aerial Systems Integration Pilot Program – UAS IPP.


In San Diego; Reno, Nev.; Raleigh, N.C.; and Herndon Va., the program will permit delivery drones to fly higher and farther than ever allowed in the U.S. – and to do it over crowded urban landscapes.

The program was created under the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, which instructs the aviation agency to create the rules and regulations needed to safely integrate drones into the national airspace.

The UAS IPP program is an effort to get regional commercial drone programs in operation so flight pattern, safety, neighborhood acceptance and other data can be accumulated to help move regulatory efforts forward.

Ten areas are covered by the UAS IPP waivers. They allow drones to fly higher than the current 400-foot ceiling and to travel out of sight of the operator and over populated areas. Most of the programs involve aerial mapping and inspection, but four are assessing delivery-by-drone services.


The delivery program underway in the Raleigh and Durham metropolitan area of North Carolina launched last month. Working with UPS, drone developer Matternet began carrying medical specimens among various WakeMed health care system facilities.

UPS says the flights represent the first FAA-sanctioned use of drones for regular revenue-producing delivery flights in the U.S.

“Using drones to bring blood and other diagnostic specimens from medical facilities to central labs will improve transport efficiencies like never before. And with fewer vehicles on the road, we’ll generate less environmental impact,” Chris Cassidy, president of UPS’ global Healthcare & Life Sciences division, told

A second California company, Zipline, hasn’t spelled out its North Carolina plan yet, but it likely will also involve medical-supply delivery.

Zipline drone

A Zipline drone (Photo: Zipline)

“There are all kinds of applications for this technology; we think that the most compelling is saving lives,” said Zipline spokesman Justin Hamilton. The Half Moon Bay, Calif., startup has operated a medical-delivery service in Rwanda for several years and recently expanded into Ghana. Its main business in Africa is delivering blood to medical facilities in rural areas. It has flown more than 12,000 of those missions.

Zipline is in the midst of replacing its fleet of fixed-wing drones with a new design as it expands into Ghana and several other countries. It will launch operations in North Carolina later this year, Hamilton said.

The third drone-delivery operation in North Carolina will be run by an Israeli company, Flytrex. It cut its teeth making food deliveries to customers in 13 residential neighborhoods of Reykjavik, Iceland. Its drones will be delivering food in the North Carolina program.


Matternet, based in Menlo Park, Calif., also will deliver medical samples and supplies, in this case among facilities within the UC San Diego Health System.

The company started in 2017 with paid deliveries of blood samples for a health care system in Switzerland.

The Southern California drone program will also have a food-delivery component.

Uber Technologies will use its vertical takeoff and landing drones to make food deliveries for UberEats at local college campuses and elsewhere in the San Diego area.

Uber has said it hopes to launch nationwide food delivery via drone by 2021.


In the Reno Valley area, Reno-based drone-delivery company Flirtey next year will begin delivering defibrillators to heart attack victims. In most cases, the drones – unencumbered by traffic or the region’s often mountainous terrain – can reach patients faster than can an ambulance or paramedic crews.

The patients or their helpers will be coached by 911 operators on how to use the devices while they are awaiting arrival of medical personnel.


In Herndon, about 25 miles west of Washington, D.C., Alphabet’s Project Wing will deliver parcels in a program managed by the Virginia Tech Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership. The delivery area covers six counties.

Project Wing previously has worked in the region with the Virginia Tech partnership, NASA and the FAA to test an air traffic-management system for unmanned flight operations.

The company has been making deliveries of food, medicines and household items in a test program in Australia since 2016 and later this year plans to launch a delivery program in Finland.

In April, Wing became the first drone company to win FAA certification to operate under the same flight rules as those governing charter air carriers. The air carrier certification permits Wing’s drones in the Virginia program to fly over occupied areas and beyond the operator’s line of sight. It also will enable Wing to apply for flight permission in other areas of the U.S., greatly expanding the company’s business potential.

John O'Dell May 1, 2019
Deliveries by drone are still years away for most Americans, but regulators and the drone and delivery industries are working hard to get there.

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