While plenty see drones replacing certain delivery methods, the idea that they could simply complement them is also beginning to gather some momentum. Mercedes-Benz flagged its intentions in this area last year when it unveiled a concept van that incorporates delivery drones to handle some legs of a journey, and has now taken another step forward by kicking off trials of the technology in Switzerland.
Mercedes-Benz originally teamed up with drone company Matternet to explore how drones could be combined with vans for more efficient deliveries, and it is now joined by Swiss online retailer siroop to carry out some real-world testing. Mercedes-Benz Vito vans will serve as connected, mobile landing platforms for Matternet's M2 drones, which can carry packages up to two kg (4.4 lb) over distances of up to 20 km (12.4 mi).
So rather than the drones carrying out the final leg of the journey, they will instead bring items ordered by siroop customers from the merchant's warehouses to the Vito vans parked at one of four pre-defined "rendezvous points" around the city of Zurich. There, the driver collects the package and completes the last-mile of delivery as normal, while the drone returns to the warehouse.
This is similar to the system tested by UPS earlier this year, but in that case drones would launch from trucks to act as a last-mile delivery platform for out-of-the-way stops while allowing the truck to continue making deliveries by road. So where the UPS system would save the truck from heading off the beaten path to make deliveries, the Mercedes/Matternet system would prevent the truck from needing to run back to a warehouse to stock up on deliveries.
"We believe that drone-enabled logistics networks will transform how we access goods every day – we will be able to order something online, and like magic, receive it within minutes, for a fraction of the cost and energy expended today," says Andreas Raptopoulos, Founder and CEO of Matternet. "Switzerland is at the forefront of this technological revolution – this is the first time that a drone delivery network is operating in a major European city and the first time a van and drone network is operating anywhere in the world."
The trials kicked off last week and will run seven hours a day, five days a week, over a period of three weeks, weather permitting. It is hoped that further down the track this kind of system could take the form of a fully automated e-commerce drone network, which would help ease traffic in urban environments and cut the cost and time of on-demand deliveries.
Video of the trial can be seen below.