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U.S. aviation regulators approved designs for the first flying drone built specifically for shipping packages, a major step forward for the fledgling remote delivery industry.
Matternet Inc.’s Model M2, a four-rotor copter capable of carrying a 4-pound (1.8-kilogram) package, is considered safe and reliable, the Federal Aviation Administration said in a statement Sept. 7. Winning regulatory permission for aeronautical designs is one of the major hurdles required before the devices can operate routinely for commercial operations.
“It is an important milestone in the FAA’s support for the development of innovative drone technology,” the FAA said in the release.
Other restrictions remain before package delivery by aerial drone becomes widespread, such as the need for a low-altitude air-traffic system and rules to allow automated flights. But FAA approval shows the technology is maturing and the agency considers this new type of rotor-powered vehicle to have the equivalent reliability of traditional aircraft.
The FAA action, known as a type certificate, is the first granted for an unpiloted vehicle since drones began to be more widely used almost a decade ago. The agency had only given restricted approvals for drone designs in the past.
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Reviewing an aircraft’s design is one of the layers of safety the FAA has traditionally applied to the aviation industry. But it has been difficult to adapt many of the basic rules — such as how to protect people on board — and that has slowed the process for the aerial drone commercialization. The approval has broad implications for other unusual aviation technologies, such as the new class of urban air taxis for human passengers.
Closely held Matternet, based in Mountain View, Calif., has worked with UPS Inc. and conducted FAA-sanctioned delivery tests. It also has operated in other countries.
UPS ranks No. 1 on the Transport Topics Top 100 list of the largest for-hire carriers in North America.
The M2 drone will have a top speed of 45 miles (72 kilometers) per hour and fly no higher than 400 feet off the ground, the FAA said. The company didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
Alphabet Inc.’s Wing and Amazon.com Inc.’s Prime Air, among numerous other companies, have been conducting tests and gradually gaining less expansive approvals from the FAA for what they are betting will be a technology that transforms how products are delivered to people’s homes.