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UPS is starting to test drone deliveries in the US

The delivery truck of the future. Maybe.
  • Mike Murphy
By Mike Murphy

Technology editor

Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Instead of waiting impatiently for a large brown truck to drop off your latest online orders, you might soon have to turn your attention to the sky.

UPS announced Sept. 23 that it has begun testing drone deliveries in the US with drone manufacturer CyPhy Works. The two companies yesterday completed a test of delivering medicine from the coastal town of Beverly, Massachusetts, to Children’s Island, a small island about three miles into the Atlantic Ocean.

CyPhy’s drone has night-vision capabilities, according to a release shared with Quartz. The test yesterday involved a trial situation where an asthmatic child urgently needed an inhaler, which was dispatched from the mainland to the island, arriving far more quickly than it would’ve taken a boat to get there. CyPhy’s drone autonomously flew supplies over the ocean to a group waiting to receive them on the other end, although there was no actual child with asthma in danger.

In May, the UPS Foundation, UPS’s charitable arm, had announced that it was partnering with the drone company Zipline to deliver medical supplies to rural Rwanda, having granted $800,000 to the project. UPS has also invested an undisclosed amount in CyPhy.

In August, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) outlined new rules for using drones commercially in the US. The rules replaced the complicated system of applying for an exemption to make money flying a drone with a test akin to a driver’s license test (albeit far more difficult) that anyone can take and start flying commercially.

While the new regulations don’t allow for pilots to fly drones farther than they can see them—meaning drone delivery services like the ones Amazon and Google want to set up would be very limited if companies operated them now—the FAA has stated that it will look into the possibilities of long-distance and autonomous drone operations in the future. It’s started working with companies to test the feasibility of autonomous drone deliveries with current technology, and recently worked with the delivery company Flirtey and 7 Eleven to deliver a Slurpee by drone in Nevada.

CyPhy’s UPS-branded drone embarking on its maiden journey.

UPS told Quartz that the FAA was aware of its test, and Houston Mills, a commercial pilot with UPS for over a decade and the company’s director of airline safety, was recently announced as a member of the FAA’s Drone Advisory Committee. The committee is working with industry experts and companies to figure out how to safely integrate a network of commercial drones into US airspace.

Perhaps in the near future, you’ll be able to order products online—and instead of having to wait for them to be loaded onto trucks, flown halfway across the country, loaded onto another truck, miss the delivery, have to reschedule and waste a whole day waiting for the driver to show up—a little brown drone will come buzzing over with your goods as soon as they’re ready.

Correction (Oct. 17): An earlier version of this post stated that UPS had invested nearly $1 million into Zipline, when in fact its charitable arm, the UPS Foundation, granted Zipline $800,000 to support the launch of its drone program in Rwanda.

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