Drone delivery’s top dog just added a bark to its bite.
Zipline—whose 750,000 deliveries and 50 million autonomous miles flown to date arguably make it the industry’s undisputed titan—on Tuesday received FAA authorization to remove visual observers (VOs) from its beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) operations. The firm, which has already taken a massive bite out of the global drone delivery market share, now adds a key operational approval that could make its service more scalable and affordable.
The approval, which follows similar BVLOS exemptions for UPS Flight Forward, uAvionix, and Phoenix Air Unmanned, extended Zipline’s Part 135 air carrier approval, obtained last year. It will allow the company to complete commercial package deliveries without VOs in Salt Lake City, and Bentonville, Arkansas. The new exemption will expire in September 2025.
The approved operations will make use of Zipline’s Sparrow drone, which releases packages using a parachute. Data from those activities will help inform FAA policy and rulemaking on a final BVLOS rule, which may still be more than a year away.
Almost all long-range drone delivery flights in the U.S. require VOs stationed on the ground to monitor the airspace along the route. Removing them could save Zipline money and open new routes, extending the firm’s dominance in the young industry. The company said it will fly without VOs in the U.S. later this year.
“Today we use 4,000 pound gas combustion vehicles driven by humans to do billions of deliveries across the country,” said Keller Rinaudo Cliffton, CEO and co-founder of Zipline. “It’s expensive, slow, and bad for the environment. This decision means that we can start to transition delivery to solutions that are 10 [times] as fast, less expensive, and zero emission. It means that Zipline hubs across the country can now go from serving a few thousand homes to serving hundreds of thousands of homes each year and millions of people, which will save time, money, and even lives.”
Zipline drones, or Zips, are equipped with a patented onboard acoustic detect-and-avoid (DAA) system that allows them to continuously monitor the airspace in real time. DAA relies on small, lightweight microphones to detect and avoid aircraft in all directions up to two miles away. Zips also use onboard ADS-B transponders to identify nearby aircraft, even in darkness or harsh weather.
Additionally, the drone’s safety system includes more than 500 preflight safety checks, strategic route design, and redundant flight-critical systems. Working with Zipline to rigorously test the Sparrow’s onboard systems and safety processes, the FAA deemed it safe to operate without VOs. It added that the exemption is “in the public interest.”
The agency in August told FLYING its recent BVLOS approvals will open the opportunity for more summary grants: essentially, streamlined approvals of “copycat” companies with similar infrastructure, aircraft, and technology to those who have already been approved.
It chose companies with four different use cases—medical delivery (Zipline), parcel delivery (Flight Forward), inspections (PAU), and flight systems development (uAvionix)—because each clears the path to exemptions for firms serving those industries. A medical drone delivery company, for instance, could look to Zipline’s approval as a checklist for its own operational requirements.
“We applaud the FAA for taking a major step to integrate autonomous drone delivery into the airspace,” said Okeoma Moronu, head of global aviation regulatory affairs for Zipline. “This will enable more commerce, new economic opportunities, and greater access for millions of Americans.”
Zipline’s authorization comes with 95 different conditions. Among them, Zipline must fly Sparrow below 400 feet; maintain a list of all components in the aircraft; submit a collision and avoidance plan for all operational locations; and require pilots in command to steer the drone well clear of manned aircraft and other drones, among other limitations. The requirements mirror those the FAA outlined for the other three recipients.
Like the others, Zipline’s petition garnered widespread support from the industry. Groups in favor of the requested permissions included the North Carolina Department of Transportation, a longtime partner; Small UAV Coalition; General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA); Commercial Drone Alliance (CDA); and Association for Uncrewed Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), which on Tuesday put out a statement praising the FAA’s decision.
“Zipline has proven its ability to provide critical services to the public with the highest degree of safety,” said Michael Robbins, chief advocacy officer of AUVSI. “We commend the FAA for issuing this approval, which will address key needs in the health care and commercial delivery sectors. The approval demonstrates the forward momentum of the U.S. commercial drone industry. As BVLOS exemptions become commonplace, it will unlock time-sensitive delivery, support health systems’ reach to patients, and address equity gaps. Americans nationwide will benefit from this new future of healthcare logistics.”
The Air Line Pilots Association, International (ALPA) and National Agricultural Aviation Association (NAAA), however, had a few gripes. Specifically, they contended Zipline did not submit enough evidence that DAA would provide an equivalent level of safety to VOs. The FAA disagreed, arguing the system combined with the required conditions will be sufficient.
Zipline to date has flown more than 50 million commercial autonomous miles, completing three-quarter of a million deliveries without a major safety incident. In other countries, it has flown without VOs for years and learned plenty from those operations.
The company launched in Rwanda, where it faced lower regulatory barriers than in the U.S., in 2016. The country gave Zipline a proving ground for its technology, and it’s since launched operations in Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, and the Ivory Coast.
Zipline began servicing the U.S. in 2020, delivering medical supplies and personal protective equipment to hospitals at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Since then, it’s been flying in Arkansas since 2021 and in North Carolina and Utah since 2022.
The company owns a Part 135 air carrier certificate that gives it a longer range than just about any drone delivery provider in the country—its Zips can travel up to 140 miles on a single round trip. Its first-generation Platform 1 system operates on three continents and makes a delivery every 70 seconds.
The game-changer, however, will be Platform 2 (P2), a new model announced in March that already has several U.S. customers, including OhioHealth, Michigan Medicine, Sweetgreen, and GNC.
P2 Zips will fly more than 300 feet above the ground. Upon arriving at the customer’s location, they will continue hovering at that altitude, lowering cargo to the ground with a delivery “droid” attached to a tether. The smaller droid can autonomously reorient and reposition itself in the air for precision deliveries to a front doorstep, patio table, or other tight space.
The system also includes infrastructure for businesses. Customers can add docking and charging nests to building exteriors and even install drone “drive-thru” windows, which allow store employees to load Zips on a sliding platform without having to leave the building.
The next-generation system is expected to enable hub-and-spoke deliveries within a 10-mile-service radius. But Zips could also be deployed in a network, traveling as far as 24 miles from dock to dock to enable greater scale. This is similar to the Delivery Network concept proposed by Alphabet drone delivery arm Wing, which calls for the aircraft to behave more like last-mile delivery vans, flying fluidly between locations.
Zipline said it is conducting high-volume flight tests of P2 this year. Its first customer deployment is expected next year.