Matternet readies cargo drone for FAA tests

One of the country’s largest small drone manufacturers is ready to begin durability and reliability testing of one of its cargo delivery units with the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) this year.

Mountain View, California-based Matternet announced Tuesday that the testing with the agency brings the company’s M2 drone closer to receiving special type certification for unmanned aircraft systems.

Achieving this certification from the FAA will establish that Matternet’s M2 drone is airworthy and eligible for use by commercial air carriers. While numerous cargo delivery drones are undergoing development and testing, none has received this level of certification.

Since March 2019, FAA-approved drone airline UPS Flight Forward has used Matternet’s M2 drones to carry out various urban cargo delivery tests throughout the country.

In partnership with WakeMed Health, UPS Flight Forward used M2 drones to complete more than 1,850 deliveries of lab samples within its Raleigh, North Carolina, medical campus in 2019. The FAA requires UPS drone operators to maintain a clear line of sight of the machines during flight.

This month UPS Flight Forward will use M2 drones to make short-distance deliveries of prescription drugs from a CVS Health Corp. pharmacy to The Villages in Florida, the largest U.S. retirement community and home to more than 135,000 residents.

The potential for “touchless” drone deliveries of medical supplies, lab samples and pharmaceuticals has taken on increased significance with efforts to combat the spread of COVID-19 within communities.

“The Matternet M2 has been purpose-built for its mission of urban medical delivery, combining solid engineering, years of flight experience, and the safety and security required for medical logistics,” said the company’s CEO, Andreas Raptopoulos, in a statement.

Receiving this type of certification from the FAA will allow UPS to scale operations much more quickly, Matternet said.

However, industry experts say the agency’s durability and reliability testing to certify airworthiness is rigorous.

“This will probably be measured in years rather than months,” said Michael Blades, vice president of aerospace, defense and security at investment strategies firm Frost & Sullivan. “The strict safety requirements will require a lot of testing over a relatively long period of time.”

Amazon (NASDAQ: AMZN) began developing drones in 2013 for consumer deliveries. Since then, other express delivery companies, such as UPS (NYSE: UPS) and FedEx (NYSE: FDX), have initiated their own plans for the technology.

Blades told American Shipper during an interview in mid-April that FAA regulations for drone flight ceilings, times of operation and visual contact by operators during flight continue to hold back the technology’s commercial cargo potential in the U.S.

He estimated in a recent Frost & Sullivan report that between 2019 and 2023, about 100,000 drones will be in use for cargo delivery applications, and they will be operated by firms providing niche services.