FAA Lists Requirements For Drones Battling Pandemic

Zipline drone releases package.
Credit: Zipline

WASHINGTON—More than a dozen companies and government agencies are seeking to use drones in ways that are beyond what is currently allowed by FAA regulations to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, the agency said April 15.

“We are making these requests a priority and considering options for accommodating such operations consistent with our safety mission,” the FAA said in response to an inquiry by Aviation Daily.

One company that has made public its desire to expedite deliveries of medical samples and supplies in response to the pandemic is Zipline, which has been conducting long-range drone services in Rwanda since 2016 and Ghana since 2019.

Zipline’s fixed-wing, 46 lb. max takeoff weight drone is launched by catapult, delivers a 3.9-lb. payload to a distance of 50 mi., drops the parcel by parachute and returns to its base. The company, based in South San Francisco, California, says it can perform up to 150 deliveries a day.

Among operations that could support the response to the pandemic, the drones could deliver laboratory reagents and other supplies used to diagnose COVID-19 cases, treatments used to manage symptoms of the disease, and targeted supplies of personal protective equipment for healthcare workers, the company said.

Zipline has been collaborating with Novant Health of North Carolina and had plans to launch a delivery service in the U.S. this fall, placing medical supplies with health facilities and patients at their homes. With the spread of the coronavirus, the company hopes to expedite the regulatory approval process with the FAA.

“We believe there’s a lot we could do here,” said William Hetzler, who co-founded Zipline in 2014. “We have already received requests from the community level to accelerate our launch to help with the response to the coronavirus. We’re ready to go. We believe that as soon as we receive the green light, we could be operating in as little as a few weeks.”

Replying to a set of questions, the FAA said its current regulatory framework already allows drone operators “to transport goods and certain medical supplies, such as test kits, most prescription drugs and under certain circumstances, blood—provided the flight complies with all provisions of the rule or authorization.”

The existing regulatory path includes the FAA’s Part 107 rule for the commercial operation of drones weighing less than 55 lbs. and its certificate of waiver or authorization (COA) process.

Under Part 107, an operator can transport non-hazardous materials when the drone is flown within the pilot’s visual line of sight and within state boundaries. Missions that cannot be accomplished under the rule’s operating limitations could be possible if the operator obtains a waiver, the agency said.

Since 2018, the FAA has issued more than 1,700 COAs for drone operations, mostly to public safety agencies. “These agencies have a broad spectrum in which to operate and at their discretion may use existing authorizations for COVID-19 responses,” the agency said.

“The FAA also issues special approvals, some in less than an hour, for flights that support emergency activities and appropriate government, health or community initiatives,” the agency said, adding that its Systems Operations Security Center “is available 24/7 to process emergency requests.”

Drone operators that are flying under the requirements of Part 107 or with a COA may seek such Special Government Interest (SGI) approvals. The FAA said it has granted SGIs for COVID-19 response efforts to the Los Angeles Fire Department; the Norfolk, Virginia, Police Department; the Syracuse, New York, Fire Department; the Washington County, New York, Department of Public Safety; and the Union, New Jersey, Police Department.

“The number of COAs and SGI approvals does not indicate how many COVID-19-related drone flights are occurring,” the agency said. “Countless COVID-19-related flights are authorized under a single COA or SGI, or may be flown by someone who is operating under Part 107.”

To fly a drone that weighs more than 55 lbs., an operator could apply for authorization under the Special Authority for Certain Unmanned Systems, a provision of FAA reauthorization legislation passed in 2018, and would also require a COA.

Another regulatory path requires a drone operator to conduct missions under the FAA’s Part 135 regulation with a Part 119 air-carrier certificate. Part 135 is an operating approval that typically applies to charter-type passenger and cargo carriers.

“Obtaining a certificate to conduct operations under Part 135 is a rigorous process but allows operators more flexibility, including carrying hazardous materials if they have the appropriate, FAA-approved HazMat program,” the agency said.

The FAA granted the first Part 135 approval for a drone operator to Alphabet Wing in April 2019, and a more expansive approval to UPS Flight Forward in September 2019. The agency says it is working with seven other applicants.

Drone operators who have questions can contact the FAA’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems Support Center at 844-FLY-MYUA or [email protected]


Bill Carey

Based in Washington, D.C., Bill covers business aviation and advanced air mobility for Aviation Week Network. A former newspaper reporter, he has also covered the airline industry, military aviation, commercial space and unmanned aircraft systems. He is the author of 'Enter The Drones, The FAA and UAVs in America,' published in 2016.