News that UPS had interest in drone delivery first surfaced in 2013, just a few weeks after Amazon’s Jeff Bezos took the wraps off the first version of the Prime Air flying machine.
Then last year it revealed it was testing drones for delivering emergency supplies to people in remote areas.
Now the shipping giant has unveiled its most advanced system yet — a fully autonomous drone that launches from the top of its delivery trucks, flying packages to customers while the driver delivers to other customers in the same locality. The aim is to boost efficiency by cutting down on the number of miles driven, which in turn will help to cut emissions.
The technology has been developed in partnership with Workhorse, an Ohio-based electric truck and drone developer, and was tested in Florida at the start of this week. It looks pretty cool — at least, according to the slickly shot marketing video above — with the roof of the UPS truck sliding open to reveal the package-carrying octocopter.
The custom-built vehicle makes it easy for the drone to be quickly loaded up with another package, and includes a docking station to keep its battery topped off.
“This test is different than anything we’ve done with drones so far,” Mark Wallace, UPS senior vice president of global engineering and sustainability, said in a release. “It has implications for future deliveries, especially in rural locations where our package cars often have to travel miles to make a single delivery.”
Explaining the process, Wallace describes a triangular delivery route where the stops are several miles apart: “Sending a drone from a package car to make just one of those deliveries can reduce costly miles driven. This is a big step toward bolstering efficiency in our network and reducing our emissions at the same time.”
But it seems the technology requires some work. TechCrunch was on hand to witness the demo, and reported that while the first one went smoothly, the second one definitely didn’t.
“Some sort of interference — possibly from the broadcast reporters’ cameras — caused an issue with the drone’s compass,” TechCrunch said. “The drone aborted its launch, tried to land on top of the UPS truck, fell to the side and was nearly crushed by the still-closing lid of the vehicle.” Oops.
Mishaps aside, UPS’s take on the delivery drone process is certainly an interesting one. With regulatory hurdles likely to hinder the introduction of any drone delivery efforts in urban areas for the foreseeable future, having a drone launch from a truck in rural locations — as opposed to from fixed-location fulfillment centers à la Amazon — seems like a more realistic option for now.