UPS has completed the first test of its truck-launched delivery drones. Conducted in a small suburb of Tampa, Florida, a modified UPS truck launched a drone that delivered a package and then returned to the truck which had continued to drive along its route.
The HorseFly octocopter was built by Ohio-based Workhorse Group. The drone’s delivery route was preset for this test, but UPS says future drones will have the company’s proprietary On-Road Integrated Optimization and Navigation (ORION) to calculate the best route.
The drone docks on the roof of the delivery truck. A cage suspended beneath the drone, extends through a hatch into the truck. A UPS driver loads a package into the cage and presses a button on a touch screen, sending the drone on a preset autonomous route to an address. The battery-powered HorseFly drone recharges while it’s docked. It has a 30-minute flight time and can carry a package weighing up to 10 pounds.
UPS estimates that reducing the distance its truck drive by just one mile per driver per day over one year could save the company up to $50 million.
“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,” says Mark Wallace, UPS senior vice president of global engineering and sustainability. “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. This is a big step toward bolstering efficiency in our network and reducing our emissions at the same time.”
Drone’s-eye view of the UPS HorseFly drone delivery test. (Credit: UPS)
What makes this drone delivery test unique, of course, is the moving, drone-launching truck. Most other drone deliveries have launched a from a fulfillment or store.
One thing you don’t see in any of the UPS-produced videos is a snafu that occurred during a second delivery attempt. TechCrunch captured video of it, and the GIF below shows what went wrong. The delivery drone tipped over when it tried to take off from the UPS truck. It was then nearly crushed by the truck’s roof that started to close over the launching pad.
“For the photographers we tried to do a quick non-traditional delivery and something went wrong,” Stephen Burns, chief executive of Workhorse, says. “We probably shouldn’t have tried to do something weird like that with everyone watching.”
Burns says the problem may have been caused by interference from TV cameras that were filming the test. If that’s the case, we have a long way to go before drone delivery takes off.
But this isn’t the first time UPS has tested delivery drones. In September 2016, UPS teamed with CyPhy Works and successfully used a drone to deliver medicine to an island near Boston. The drone flew about 22 MPH and is a much quicker delivery solution than the 30-minute boat ride several people involved in the test took to the island.