In collaboration with Workhorse Group, UPS has successfully tested a drone that launches from the top of a UPS car, autonomously delivers a package to a home and then returns to the vehicle – while the delivery driver continues along the route to make a separate delivery.
UPS conducted the test on Monday in Lithia, Fla., with Workhorse, an Ohio-based battery-electric truck and drone developer. Workhorse built the drone and the electric vehicle used in the test.
“This test is different than anything we’ve done with drones so far. It has implications for future deliveries, especially in rural locations where our package cars often have to travel miles to make a single delivery,” states Mark Wallace, UPS’ senior vice president of global engineering and sustainability.
UPS says it has about 66,000 delivery drivers on the road each day. In particular, rural delivery routes are the most expensive to serve due to the time and vehicle expenses required to complete each delivery.
“Imagine a triangular delivery route where the stops are miles apart by road,” Wallace explains. “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 drone used in Monday’s test was the Workhorse HorseFly unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), an octocopter that is fully integrated with Workhorse’s line of electric/hybrid delivery trucks.The drone docks on the roof of the delivery truck; a cage suspended beneath the drone extends through a hatch into the truck. The UPS driver inside loads a package into the cage and presses a button on a touchscreen, sending the drone on a preset, autonomous route to an address.
The battery-powered HorseFly UAV, which recharges while it’s docked, has a 30-minute flight time and can carry a package weighing up to 10 pounds.
For this test, Workhorse preset the route for the aircraft, but in the future, routes could be determined by UPS’ on-road integrated optimization and navigation, the company’s proprietary routing software.
This most recent test demonstrated how UAVs can assist in making non-urgent residential deliveries as part of day-to-day operations, says UPS.
“Drivers are the face of our company, and that won’t change,” Wallace notes. “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.”
UPS has been testing automation and robotics technologies, including drones, for years. Last September, UPS staged a mock delivery of urgently needed medicine from Beverly, Mass., to an island three miles off the Atlantic coast. Additionally, UPS is using UAVs for humanitarian relief by partnering with third-party organizations to deliver blood and vaccines to hard-to-reach locations in Rwanda. The company is also using the technology to check inventory on high storage shelves in its warehouses.