There's no shortage of companies looking to deliver goods to consumers via drone in an effort to cut costs and waiting times. Having previously partnered with drone maker CyPhy Works to test the potential of aerial couriers, global shipping giant UPS has now teamed with Ohio-based electric truck and drone developer Workhorse Group to trial a drone that launches from the roof of a delivery truck. The idea is that the drone can handle out-of-the-way stops, while the driver continues making other deliveries by road.
Where previous drone delivery trials we've looked at have seen drones launching from a fixed base of operations, the UPS trial makes the launch pad mobile in the form of the roof of a delivery truck. The idea is that such a system would enable drivers to send the drone and its cargo to a customer whose house would otherwise take the driver out of their way, such as in rural areas, thereby allowing the truck to continue on their way making other more direct deliveries.
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"This test is different than anything we've done with drones so far," says Mark Wallace, UPS senior vice president of global engineering and sustainability. "It has implications for future deliveries, especially in rural locations where our package cars often have to travel miles to make a single delivery. Imagine a triangular delivery route where the stops are miles apart by road. Sending a drone from a package car to make just one of those deliveries can reduce costly miles driven."
UPS calculates that cutting a driver's route by just one mile (1.6 km) a day would save the company up to US$50 million a year and would be beneficial on rural delivery routes, which are more expensive and take longer than deliveries in built-up areas.
The test, which was conducted this week in Lithia, Florida, involved a Workhorse HorseFly octocopter delivery drone docked to the roof of one of Workhorse's line of electric/hybrid delivery trucks. The HorseFly drone can carry packages weighing up to 10 lb (4.5 kg) and has a 30-minute flight time. It also recharges when docked on the truck's roof.
A UPS driver loads packages into a cage suspended beneath the drone that reaches down through a hatch in the roof into the rear of the truck. Once loaded up, the driver can send the drone on its autonomous way to the delivery address via a touchscreen. For the test, the route was preset, but it is anticipated UPS's On-Road Integrated Optimization Navigation (ORION) routing software would plot the route when the system was put into actual use.
"The drone is fully autonomous," says Stephen Burns, Workhorse founder and CEO. "It doesn't require a pilot. So the delivery driver is free to make other deliveries while the drone is away."
The first video below shows how the system works, while the second is a 360-degree video giving a drones-eye-view of the field test.