Does this American airline have what it takes to become America’s largest drone airline?

A drone airline? Ameriflight has its sights set on becoming American’s largest drone airline. And depending on how you define it —by some standards — it already is.

Ameriflight recently announced a big win stemming from its partnership with drone delivery company Matternet, in that it has received approval from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to operate the Matternet M2 drone for commercial drone deliveries.

If you’ve never heard of Ameriflight, that’s because it’s a cargo — not a passenger — airline. But in fact, Ameriflight is the nation’s largest Part 135 Cargo airline, operating to destinations in 250 cities across 43 U.S. states plus Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, and South America. And now, it’s taken a big step ahead in its ability to deliver cargo via drones.

With this step in the partnership, Ameriflight will soon operate the Matternet M2 drone for package delivery to Matternet’s customers. The flights will occur nationwide, but will be managed from a central, regulatory-compliant Remote Operating Center located in the Dallas-Fort Worth area of Texas.

Photo courtesy of Matternet

While flights under the new system haven’t occurred yet, a spokesperson said the two companies are working on developments over the summer to make those first flights actually happen. Already, though, Ameriflight is claiming itself to be the first fully operational, large-scale drone airline in the United States.

That claim to be the “first fully operational, large-scale drone airline in the U.S.” is founded on the fact that Ameriflight already operates out of the majority of U.S. states in terms of manned flights. With the broader regulatory approval for the partnership between Ameriflight and Matternet a company spokesperson said that qualifies it to be the largest large-scale drone airline in America, adding that it “brings maturity and excellence that is leading the industry.”

Of course, whether or not Ameriflight is now a fully-operational, large-scale drone airline really depends on how you define operational — given actually flights haven’t yet taken place.

But when Ameriflight’s real-world drone flights do take off, the companies say they’ll focus on health care and e-commerce deliveries across the country (though it wouldn’t comment on specifically which health care or e-commerce companies it might partner with).

“Hospitals, laboratories and pharmacies will be the initial customers, who today rely on ground transport for urgent deliveries of samples to laboratories and pharmaceuticals to patients,” according to a company press release.

Matternet’s spokesperson also would not say specifically where, other than “dense urban and suburban environments across the country.” At the moment, Matternet has been approved to fly up to 20 drones at its test site in California.

The partnership follows another FAA approval — that one was to approve Matternet’s M2 aircraft for operations under Ameriflight’s Part 135 certificate.

It also builds on two other critical approvals made in 2022. In September 2022, the M2 drone was granted the FAA’s standard Type Certification, which basically means that the FAA believes the M2 drone “is airworthy and eligible for commercial delivery operations in the U.S.” And in November 2022, the FAA approved its first-ever Production Certificate, which was grated to the M2 delivery drone, making Matternet the first company able to produce certified delivery drones in the U.S.  Matternet’s M2 drone was the first non-military unmanned aircraft to achieve Type Certification in the U.S.

“As the only unmanned aircraft with both FAA Type and Production certificates, we are now turning our focus to scaling our operations across the U.S. and expanding into e-commerce, while doing so safely and cost-effectively,” Andreas Raptopoulos, Co-Founder and CEO of Matternet, said in a prepared statement. “This is not a test program or a future deployment concept – this is the real, scalable and safe drone-based solution that customers are looking for.”

Photo courtesy of Matternet

What is the Matternet M2 drone?

Matternet’s M2 drone was designed to carry payloads of up to 2 kilograms (4.4 pounds) over distances of up to 20 kilometers (12.4 miles) over urban and suburban environments. The drone measures 50×50 inches in width and length, and weighs 29.1 pounds.

It’s lithium-ion battery-powered, carrying a separate payload box to actually carry cargo.

It’s got safety features including a parachute that can deploy in the event of an issue. And, there’s a separate, dedicated battery to ensure that parachute ejection and flight telemetry can continue in the event of a primary power failure. The FTS also deploys if the geo-fence boundaries are breached.

The flights themselves will operate with land mobile infrastructure and networks such as LTE cellular for primary command functions, using a proprietary digital signal. The Matternet M2 auto flight system includes a Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) and compass module.

Who are the other major players in American drone delivery?

While Ameriflight claims to be the first fully operational, large-scale drone airline in the U.S., it’s actually the second operator in the U.S. approved to operate the Matternet M2. The first operator approved in the U.S. to operate the Matternet M2 for commercial delivery is actually another package delivery giant, UPS Flight Forward (which is an arm of UPS).

UPS Flight Forward received its FAA approvals way back in September 2019. UPS Flight Forward conducted its first package delivery by drone with its part 135 certification when it flew medical supplies at WakeMed hospital campus in Raleigh, NC.

That said, Matternet is generally considered only the third-largest drone delivery company in the world. According to drone analytics group Drone Industry Insights, Zipline and Wing sit in spots No. 1 and 2, respectively. The largest of them, Zipline, primarily focuses on medical drone deliveries to developing countries, though it has recently made big moves in the U.S. including a major partnership with salad chain Sweetgreen to deliver meals, an announcement made in tandem with the launch of its Platform 2 (P2) delivery technology.

The other big competitor in the U.S. drone delivery space is Google-sibling company Wing, which recently announced a partnership with DoorDash.  

A photo documenting Doordash’s flights using Wing drones. Photo courtesy of Wing.

Other companies approved by the FAA to conduct drone deliveries under a Standard Part 135 Air Carrier Certification include Amazon Prime Air, Alphabet’s Wing, Causey Aviation (which operates Flytrex drone flights), UPS and Zipline. And it’s Amazon that holds the title of first company to operate a drone larger than 55lbs under a standard Part 135 air carrier certificate.

But with Matternet’s growing partnership with Ameriflight, there’s a chance it could help propel Matternet into a higher position against Zipline or Wing. Ameriflight already has extensive experience and a solid track record handling manned logistics operations across the nation. Ameriflight averages more than 500 daily departures with over 100,000 combined flight hours and a more than 99% on-time performance record.

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