Spotlight on Jon and David Schwalm - Austin Walker
In a watershed moment for drone delivery and drone technology, DroneUp utilized its 107.39 Operations Over Human Beings waiver to transport lab specimens in COVID-19 testing kits from The State University of New York’s (SUNY) Upstate University Hospital in downtown Syracuse, New York, to nearby laboratories. The drone operation, completed in January 2021, marks the first time the 107.39 waiver has been utilized and sets the example for drone package delivery operations.
It took DroneUp seven months of close work with the Federal Aviation Administration to secure the waiver. Without the waiver, a drone operator cannot fly over people who are not participating in the operation or are not covered under a structure or within a stationary vehicle.
Dr. Robert Corona, CEO of University Hospital, noticed the value in drone delivery companies, remarking, “This is the future” after the project’s success. In the coming months, DroneUp will continue to broaden the scope of its drone services in this sector, meeting the demand from healthcare providers for more efficient drone package delivery of laboratory samples and other items.
To show our appreciation for the hardworking pilots who helped DroneUp be an industry leader in the applications of drone technology, we are featuring a father-son duo who participated in the flights.
Jon and Dave Schwalm, son and father, respectively, have been working with drones for nearly a decade, making them some of the technology’s earliest adopters. Their experience was well-utilized in the SUNY drone package deliveries.
“For us, it was surreal to be involved with a project of this scope with this many people involved,” Jon said. “It was such an incredible experience.”
The onboarding process for the two pilots was comprehensive to ensure exact adherence to the rules outlined by the FAA. The process involved interviews, hours-long training sessions, three written exams, and a practical. They both remarked on the intensity of the preparation for the usage of this novel FAA waiver.
“We’ve been doing this for ten years, but this was ten steps beyond anything we’d done,” Dave said. “The work on the training and testing was impressive, some of the best we’ve ever seen. Everyone was super professional and fantastic to work with.”
Many of the flights were launched off the helipad from the University Hospital Campus roof. It was a somewhat dizzying experience for the two of them. Flying over the city at 200 feet is why drone technology is so effective at the deliveries, but initially, it was a bit of a nail-biter.
“It’s a long three-minute flight,” Dave said.
The FAA requires drone research teams to implement parachute systems as a failsafe in the unlikely event of a malfunction. The sophisticated drone delivery system can be deployed automatically or manually and ensures the safety of those on the ground no matter the situation. The chute deploys via a ballistic component—virtually, a small explosion. Similar systems are in airbags and ejection seats.
“You had to respect it,” Jon said. “You hope never to have to use it.”
This project with SUNY is just one of many drone operations DroneUp is conducting around the country. For several months, DroneUp has partnered with Walmart to use drone package deliveries to provide at-home COVID-19 test kits to residents in Las Vegas, El Paso, and Cheektowaga, New York. DroneUp’s drone package delivery system also assisted Coca-Cola’s debut of their new Coca-Cola with Coffee product to residents of Georgia, by dropping off soda samples to residents of Coffee County.