UPS has “successfully tested” a drone that launches from a package vehicle and “autonomously delivers” a package to a home before returning to the truck — while it continues en route to other delivery locations. The test was done with Workhorse Group, which is an Ohio-based electric truck and drone developer.
The goal is to help UPS drivers be more efficient in delivering goods as the growth of online purchases continues to soar, the company said, adding that e-commerce is pegged to grow 9.5 percent a year through 2018. About 90 percent of sales still occur in a physical store, however. The growth of online sales during the 2016 holiday shopping season was estimated to be between 15 and 22 percent, according to various analysts.
Last month, Amazon said it successfully tested a drone delivery as part of its Prime Air program.
The UPS test occurred in Lithia, Fla., and appears to be best suited for rural deliveries. Mark Wallace, UPS senior vice president of global engineering and sustainability, described the test as not like anything the company has with drones prior. “It has implications for future deliveries, especially in rural locations where our package cars often have to travel miles to make a single delivery.”
Creating more efficient deliveries was a primary goal of the UPS test. “Imagine a triangular delivery route where the stops are miles apart by road,” Wallace explained. “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.”
The financial benefits are also significant. The company said a reduction of one mile per driver per day over a one-year period can save the company up to $50 million. “UPS has about 66,000 delivery drivers on the road each day,” the company noted. “Rural delivery routes are the most expensive to serve due to the time and vehicle expenses required to complete each delivery. In this test, the drone made one delivery while the driver continued down the road to make another. This is a possible role UPS envisions for drones in the future.”
But will brown-painted drones replace the familiar brown-uniformed drivers of UPS? “Drivers are the face of our company, and that won’t change,” Wallace said. “What’s exciting is the potential for drones to aid drivers at various points along their routes, helping them save time and deliver on increasing customer service needs that stem from the growth of e-commerce.”
The UPS test used Workhorse’s HorseFly UAV delivery system. The company describes it as a “high-efficiency, octocopter delivery drone that is fully integrated with Workhorse’s line of electric/hybrid delivery trucks.” The drone sits in a docking station (that doubles as a charging station) atop the truck. The driver loads the package from inside of the vehicle, and with the touch of a button it automatically delivers the package. Maximum flight time is 30 minutes, and it can carry up to 10 pounds.
Stephen Burns, Workhorse founder and chief executive officer, said it was “wonderful to see this technology applied in such a practical way. The drone is fully autonomous. It doesn’t require a pilot. So the delivery driver is free to make other deliveries while the drone is away.”