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Longtime Walmart partner DroneUp has joined a select group of drone delivery firms with expanded permissions from the Federal Aviation Administration.

The drone delivery and logistics company announced Jan. 18 that the regulator has approved it for flight beyond the visual line of sight (BVLOS) of the operator, making it one of a handful of companies with a BVLOS waiver for medical deliveries.

“Securing BVLOS approval is a testament to our dedication to safety and innovation,” said DroneUp CEO Tom Walker. “We have some significant technologies coming out of stealth this year, which when combined with BVLOS, will unlock commercial scalability that the industry and our customers have been eagerly awaiting.”

For safety reasons, the FAA requires drone flights to be visually monitored by the operator. However, the agency occasionally awards waivers that enable BVLOS flights with certain restrictions, such as visual observers (VOs) stationed along the route. 

A handful of firms — including another medical drone delivery company, Zipline — advanced past that stage in September, receiving FAA approval to remove VOs as well. DroneUp’s Part 107 waiver requires one or more VOs to monitor for other aircraft in the airspace within 2 square miles of the drone. But they won’t need to maintain a visual on the drone itself.

“Our ability to fly BVLOS propels us into the next level of using drone technology, undoubtedly enhancing the efficiency of medical deliveries, ensuring that crucial supplies reach healthcare facilities and patients promptly,” said John Vernon, chief technology officer of DroneUp.

DroneUp said its waiver allows it to immediately begin flying BVLOS for Riverside Health System, a customer with facilities spread throughout Virginia. According to the company, the approval will also clear a path for BVLOS deployments across the country with new and existing customers.

Two other Walmart drone delivery partners — Zipline and Wing, the drone delivery arm of Google parent Alphabet — have similarly expanded their BVLOS permissions as the massive retailer scales its network.

Wing is one of the first drone delivery firms to leverage what the FAA calls a summary grant. Essentially, these are streamlined authorizations for “copycat” companies with similar infrastructure, aircraft and technology to those that have already been approved. Wing, for example, piggybacked off of Zipline’s BVLOS waiver.

Zipline, UPS Flight Forward, Phoenix Air Unmanned and uAvionix were the four firms in the FAA’s initial cohort of BVLOS recipients named last year. The agency carefully selected each company to open summary grants to a variety of industries. Zipline’s waiver, for example, provides a framework for BVLOS medical drone delivery, while UPS Flight Forward’s does the same for parcel drone delivery.

DroneUp — like Zipline, Wing and other waiver recipients — says its approval could substantially reduce operational costs by cutting down on required human resources. The authorization could also expand the firm’s operations. Humans will no longer be required to visually observe its drones, creating the potential for longer routes.

Waivers such as DroneUp’s will help the FAA learn more about BVLOS operations as the regulator works to develop a final BVLOS rule. So far, the agency has convened a committee of industry stakeholders and studied its final recommendations. But there is still no firm timeline for an official set of industrywide BVLOS regulations.

In lieu of a final rule, expect the FAA to continue issuing BVLOS waivers and summary grants, which will give certain communities a glimpse of what drone delivery may look like at scale. DroneUp and Walmart currently fly out of 36 hubs in seven states.

The post DroneUp latest firm approved to fly drones beyond line of sight appeared first on FreightWaves.

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