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UPS Begins Delivery Drone Testing

UPS has joined the race to get delivery drones off the ground. The company last week began testing drones for commercial deliveries to remote locations. Partnering with robot-maker CyPhy Works, UPS launched a drone from the seaside town of Marblehead, MA, that flew on a programmed route for three miles over the Atlantic Ocean and successfully delivered an inhaler to Children's Island.

CyPhy Works founder Helen Greiner said the drone tests allow her company to gather engineering and cost information to then determine where drone deliveries can be most valuable for UPS. “I thought it was fantastic,” John Dodero, vice president for industrial engineering at UPS, told CNBC.

The drone test comes one month after the Federal Aviation Administration’s new set of rules for commercial drone use went into effect, removing some barriers for drone deliveries but leaving others in place. The new guidelines require companies to register their drones online and then pass a knowledge test to be certified, a lesser restriction than previously needing a manned aircraft pilot’s license.

The new rules allow for drones weighing less than 55 pounds to fly up to 400 feet high and move at 100 miles per hour. Drones will not be allowed to fly at night unless they have special lighting and must stay at least five miles from airports. The rules also note that an operator can fly a commercial drone without a certificate if they are supervised by someone who has been certified, indicating that multiple drones can be operated by a single certified operator.

However, two major obstacles remain for companies planning on drone deliveries: Drones must remain in sight of an operator and can’t be flown over people.

“Drones aren't going to take the place of all delivery,” Greiner told CNBC. “But there are places where you have inaccessible location, an emergency situation where the infrastructure is down, you want or need the package quickly – these are the areas where drones will be the best way to get a package to a location.”

Amazon and Google have both said they plan to start using drones to deliver products ordered online by 2017.