UPS has repurposed its classic brown delivery vans to serve not only as parcel transporters, but also as roving drone command centers. In recent tests, retrofitted vans dispatch drones loaded with packages from the roof of the vehicle. The drones travel autonomously to their drop-site, and then return to the vehicle – which has moved on to its next delivery.
The first successful tests took place earlier this week in Lithia, Florida with a battery-powered drone manufactured by Ohio-based Workhorse Group. Use of these drones could enable drivers to avoid making stops at individual drop-off points, thus reducing miles driven.
UPS says that with 66,000 delivery drivers on the road each day, a reduction of just one mile per driver, per day, would save the company up to US$50 million per year.
The delivery process is as follows: A cage suspended under the drone lowers into the truck, where a UPS driver loads a package. Once secured, the drone lifts-off and travels on a preset autonomous route to the delivery address. Following delivery, the drone navigates back to the truck, which has moved on to the next delivery in the interim. The battery-powered HorseFly drone recharges while docked. It has a 30-minute-maximum flight time and can carry a package weighing up to 4.5kgs.
Although in initial tests the drone traveled along a route set specifically for the test, in the future, routes and dispatch points could be generated by UPS’ On-Road Integrated Optimization and Navigation (ORION) system, the company’s proprietary routing software. This would ensure drivers travel along triangular routes, minimizing the distance a drone would have to travel while returning to the moving van.
Here is a video of the Workhorse drone in action:
UPS’ envisioned model for rural drone deliveries is quite different from that of China-based JD.com’s. Within the United States, “rural” is often synonymous with sparse populations, while in China rural does not necessarily negate population density. Such densities enable JD to dispatch ground-based drones from delivery stations located at central points near villages. For more on JD’s drones, see JD.com sees drones as key to rural delivery strategy. For comparison, the video below highlights JD’s use of drones: