FAA Approves Zipline’s Drone-Delivery Service as Air Carrier

A drone flies to make a delivery at a Zipline hub in Vobsi, Ghana. (Zipline via Associated Press)

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A drone-delivery company that has made thousands of medical drops in Africa, including distributions of COVID-19 vaccines, was approved by U.S. regulators to operate as a small air carrier.

Zipline International Inc., which already is making deliveries with companies such as Walmart Inc., said June 21 that the Federal Aviation Administration certification would allow it to expand by shipping heath care products from its North Carolina headquarters.

“We are one step closer to making safe, clean and quiet instant delivery a reality for communities across the U.S.,” Zipline CEO Keller Rinaudo said.

Several companies, including Alphabet Inc.’s Wing, Amazon.com Inc.’s Prime Air and UPS Inc.’s UPS Flight Forward, have received similar approvals, according to FAA’s website. While they and other companies are testing delivery systems, FAA hasn’t written basic regulations and safety standards to allow for routine product drops by drones. Zipline’s approval as an air carrier occurred June 17, the company said.

Unlike most of its competitors that operate drones that can take off vertically, Zipline uses an aircraft that flies more like a traditional plane and is capable of traveling longer distances. The company said it has made more than 300,000 commercial deliveries, many of them medical supply drops in Africa.

It also is seeking approval for a type of automated drone air-traffic system to ensure its aircraft steer clear of other planes and helicopters, Rinaudo said. It uses an array of microphones that can detect the sounds of other aircraft, even in clouds, he said.

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