UPS has announced plans for deliveries via drones, but unlike Amazon's drone delivery schtick, it's not offloading them from a distant outpost or even a blimp: it's integrating them into delivery trucks, perched atop the vehicle, prepared to launch at various points within a route.
UPS Fuses Delivery Trucks With Drones
The Georgia-based package delivery company ran the initial drone delivery service tests Monday in a small town outside Tampa, Florida, claiming to have successfully launched a drone from the top of a UPS delivery truck, which then delivered the package autonomously to its destination, and then finally returned to the truck at a different location.
At present, the Federal Aviation Administration still renders it illegal to operate drones beyond the operator's line of sight, as noted by Recode. Because of this, UPS probably had staff manning the flight of the drones, making sure they functioned correctly.
Drone-Assisted Delivery Service
Employing a drone-assisted delivery service, even at a relatively small scale such as what UPS has demonstrated, could save the company $50 million per year, assuming at least a mile is shaved off on trips taken by the company's 66,000 drivers daily.
What's more, delivery services can be more expensive in rural areas, where drivers typically incur more miles between destinations to deliver packages, because of the sparse population in each of them. Delivery companies, such as Amazon, UPS, and others, are trying to cut the costs of last-mile trips with the help of drones.
"[The drone delivery test] has implications for future deliveries, especially in rural locations where our package cars often have to travel miles to make a single delivery," said Mark Wallace, senior VP of global engineering and sustainability at UPS. "This is a big step toward bolstering efficiency in our network and reducing our emissions at the same time."
The company's drone-assisted delivery service is made possible by its On-Road Integrated Optimization Navigation, a proprietary routing software. For the initial test, UPS collaborated with Workhorse, which is also the originator of the octocopter drone used in the delivery. Workhorse preset the route for the drone in the first test, but UPS says that ORION could be the primary tool it'll use for future drone-assisted deliveries.
While the initial test was a success, UPS has still a lot more to improve upon. TechCrunch reports that the company's second test of the drone failed, with it suspending its own launch, falling over, and nearly getting destroyed.
There's clearly more work to be done in terms of the technology, but even if UPS polishes that knob, it still has FAA's regulatory hurdle to worry about. Its rules mean that the trucks cannot operate that far from the drone, a rule which, if not lifted, could negate the whole idea of drone deliveries. One may ask what's the point of laboring over finances and man-hours into developing a functional drone delivery system, if the potential gains are abysmal because of regulatory roadblocks.
But companies are extensively flirting with the technology, and that could lead these entities entering a concerted effort to coax FAA into laxing its tight-wrung regulations. Amazon has been, at least by some measure, the mouthpiece of drone delivery systems. It started testing the technology in the UK in 2016, and it has astounding, if a little bizarre plans going forward.