The United Parcel Service has high hopes for drones.
In late September, the package delivery giant and a drone startup, CyPhy Works, said they had successfully tested a drone delivery, in which a flying robot delivered an asthma inhaler to a children’s summer camp on a small island off the coast of Massachusetts.
Staff from UPS and CyPhy programmed a flight path for the drone that let it fly autonomously from the city of Beverly, roughly 25 miles outside of Boston, to the summer camp on Children’s Island. This 3-mile-long trek over part of the Atlantic Ocean took roughly 8 minutes for the drone to complete. Still, just because UPS completed the drone test doesn’t mean it’s ushering in an era in which drones will be routinely used to deliver toilet paper, sandwiches, and other goods to people in major urban cities.
In an interview with Fortune, UPS
senior vice president for global engineering and sustainability Mark Wallace said that its drone-delivery testing projects are currently focused on using the devices to fly in remote locations to deliver emergency supplies, Wallace said. A broader, more widespread consumer drone delivery service appears to be years away.
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“We don’t have a timeline on that,” Wallace said of a large-scale drone delivery service. “I don’t think anyone has.”
Organizations like Amazon
and Google’s parent company Alphabet
are currently testing drone deliveries in many different locations around the world. Alphabet’s research arm, X, for example, received in August White House approval to test its Project Wing delivery service at one of the six federally sanctioned U.S. drone testing sites. In July, Amazon said it would partner with the British government to bring drone deliveries to the United Kingdom.
Wallace said that as of now, UPS is interested in using drones to deliver goods to locations that are harder to get to, like its Children’s Island delivery test. He cited how UPS and a drone startup, Zipline, are testing the use of drones to deliver blood, vaccines, and other medical supplies to rural areas in Rwanda as an example of the kind of humanitarian drone delivery initiatives UPS is currently researching.
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The company is “not looking to replace our UPS drivers” with drones, and those drivers are “key to our service” and to the company’s brand, Wallace said.
He didn’t directly comment on Google’s and Amazon’s drone projects, but said “the industry continues to learn and advance” from their endeavors.
Regarding the Federal Aviation Administration’s recent passing of drone regulations for businesses, Wallace explained that UPS would be working with the federal government on new regulations. Under current FAA rules, companies cannot fly drones beyond the line of sight of human operators nor fly them at night, unless they receive an exemption.
The FAA recently created a new drone advisory committee with government officials and representatives of companies and drone advocacy organizations that will work on refining the current rules to accommodate issues like flying drones outside a human operator’s field of vision.
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Some of the members of the new drone advisory committee include representatives from UPS, Google, Amazon, Facebook
, American Airlines
, and San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee.
Although the FAA has formed similar drone committees in the past, like when it debuted a drone registration database for hobbyists last December, the new advisory board marks the first time that UPS has officially signed on to one of these government and industry initiatives, Wallace said.
By being a part of the new committee, he hopes that UPS can work with government leaders on introducing new drone rules that satisfy both the commercial sector and the FAA’s safety concerns. He explained that UPS, through some of its drone testing projects like the one it’s carrying out in Rwanda, can share its research with government leaders and educate them on how to safely use drones.
Additionally, UPS is also exploring how to use drones to better track inventory in its various packaging facilities, Wallace said. For example, instead of having to use a forklift or to send a human on a ladder to scan and locate a particular package, workers would be able to fly a drone directly to the package and have the flying robot scan it.
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Still, the idea of using drones to track goods in UPS facilities is just experimental at this point of time, Wallace said.
For many of the drone projects UPS is working on, Wallace said that current technology needs improvement before the package delivery giant is willing to debut big initiatives. Especially important is the issue of drone battery life and durability, he explained.
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For example, new drones debuted by GoPro and drone manufacturer DJI have a battery life that only allows for less than 30 minutes of flight. Current battery limitations would make it difficult for companies to fly drones for extended periods of time.
“The way I look at it, this is all part of the testing phase of this,” Wallace said of current drone technologies and how they impact UPS.