Big Brown Drones: UPS Moves Closer to Autonomous Delivery from Its Trucks

Combined with navigation routing software, UPS said it could save up to US$50 million a year on rural deliveries by integrating the use of drones in a driver's daily schedule.

The world's largest courier took a step closer to that future on Monday, launching an unmanned aerial vehicle from the roof of a UPS truck about a quarter-mile to a blueberry farm outside Tampa, Florida.

The delivery operated as follows: A cage suspended under the drone lowers into the truck, where a UPS driver loads a package. Maximum flight time is 30 minutes, and it can carry up to 10 pounds. The octocopter delivered its payload at a home on the property and then flew back to the truck, which had moved down the road to allow its driver to make another delivery.

UPS is one of several e-commerce and delivery companies experimenting with drones as a way to reduce delivery times and access difficult-to-reach locations more efficiently. "It has implications for future deliveries, especially in rural locations where our package cars often have to travel miles to make a single delivery", explains Mark Wallace, the UPS senior vice president of global engineering and sustainability. UPS said that it will be able to improve efficiency in rural areas with use of drones.

This wasn't the first drone test from UPS (UPS).

The test was conducted in collaboration with drone manufacturing company Workhorse Group, an Ohio-based developer of battery-powered electric trucks and drones, which claims its product can complete last-mile deliveries for mere cents per mile.

UPS is represented on the Drone Advisory Committee for the Federal Aviation Administration, which just previous year officially released rules and regulations on the use of small, unmanned electronic flying devices. Currently, the release said, there are roughly 66,000 drivers on the road for UPS, and the company sees drones as a complement, not a replacement, for those drivers.

"Drivers are the face of our company, and that won't change", Wallace said.

During a second, unofficial demonstration of the HorseFly for UPS on Monday, some sort of interference - possibly from the broadcast reporters' cameras - caused an issue with the drone's compass. It doesn't require a pilot. Despite the bugs that need to be worked out of the delivery system, the brown octo-copter delivery drones have a lot of potential for delivery.

From a technology standpoint, the industry needs more development of "sense and avoid" technology to be ready to implement, and FAA still needs "to write the rules that will allow for the safe integration of commercial drones into the National Airspace.", he said.

Last September, UPS staged a mock delivery of urgently needed medicine from Beverly, Mass., to an island 3 miles off the Atlantic coast. UPS also is utilizing drones to check inventory on high storage shelves in its warehouses.

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