If your image of the future of drone deliveries involves swarms of quadcopters pouring out of Amazon warehouses like flying monkeys leaving the Wicked Witch’s castle, you’ll be disappointed. They’re far more likely to be dispatched from trucks parked not too far from your house.
Anything else is simply too big a hassle. Companies like UPS and Amazon prize efficiency above all, and deploying a fleet of drones from a warehouse in the middle of nowhere wastes time. Making them fly all the way back wastes energy. And you still need trucks, because drones can’t schlep more than a few pounds. But if you put the drones in the truck and fling them at houses to cover the last mile or so, well, then you’re on to something. You’re saving the driver the trouble of parking the truck, getting out, finding the package, and hoofing it to the door. Think of it as a paperboy riding his bike down the street, tossing the newspaper onto each porch.
UPS made a test run Monday in Tampa, Florida. Sid Perrin trundled through a rural neighborhood in a UPS van with an odd lump on the roof. Instead of taking a long driveway to a remote blueberry farm, she put the truck in park, climbed into the back, and placed a package in the belly of a drone. Back in the driver’s seat, she tapped a command on a touch screen. The roof of the truck retracted, the drone took flight, and Perrin continued up the road to her next destination.
The drone, meanwhile, flew a short distance to the house, deposited the package, and found the truck—where it plugged itself into a charger to await its next flight. And damned if it didn’t work.
“A trial like this is important, because it’s not just a drone itself doing something, but all the support processes, and the people,” says Timothy Carone, a physicist and expert on automation at the University of Notre Dame. “As a test, it’s more realistic, because it’s looking at how it all integrates into the business.”
UPS deployed a super-sized version of the consumer drones you already know. It weighs 9.5 pounds, sports eight rotors, and can stay aloft for 30 minutes. The van is a diesel-electric hybrid, and although the driver must come to a stop to dispatch drones, everything else about it works just like any other UPS delivery truck. The setup comes from Workhorse Group, an Ohio company that builds hybrid electric trucks, and the University of Cincinnati. They first showed it off in 2014.
If this sounds like an overly complex solution to a fairly minor problem, you know squat about the logistics of delivering a gazillion packages each day. UPS calculates that cutting just one mile from the route each of its 66,000 drivers follows each day would save the company $50 million a year. If a truck can make drones cover that last mile, they’ll easily pay for themselves. “Our drivers are still key, and our drones aren’t going to be replacing our service providers, but they can assist and improve efficiency,” says Mark Wallace, senior vp of global engineering and sustainability at UPS.
Amazon, UPS, 7-Eleven, Google, and others, are eager to deploy drones, because how fast you can get orders to customers is crucial in the competitive online shopping world. Amazon Prime Air is providing super rapid deliveries by drone, but only to two customers in the south of England, from a fixed fulfillment center. 7-Eleven is slinging everything from slurpees to flu medicine, to 12 customers in a fixed drone testing area in Nevada. Others are piggybacking on the moving vehicle idea. Mercedes-Benz joined drone developer Matternet on a networked delivery van concept with two drones docked on the roof. German engineers are teaching drones to land in nets on the roofs of cars, and Darpa has figured out how to pluck a speeding drone from midair.
It’ll be a while before UPS drones are buzzing up to your door, but UPS is working with the FAA to make it happen… at some point. That will require drafting a new rules to allow commercial drone deliveries and amending a current rule requiring drone operators keep their machines within sight. Until then, Perrin and her fellow drivers will continue schlepping your orders to your door. So remember to say thank you next time.
Read the artilce here.