Proving the Business Case for the Internet of Things

UPS tests drone for rural parcel delivery

Steve Rogerson
February 28, 2017

UPS has successfully tested a drone that launches from the top of a 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 this month in Tampa, Florida, with Workhorse Group, an Ohio-based battery-electric lorry and drone developer. Workhorse built the drone and the electric UPS package car used in the test.
"This test is different than anything we've done with drones so far," said Mark Wallace, senior vice-president of global engineering at UPS. “It has implications for future deliveries, especially in rural locations where our package cars often have to travel kilometres to make a single delivery. Imagine a triangular delivery route where the stops are kilometres apart by road. Sending a drone from a package car to make just one of those deliveries can reduce costly kilometres driven. This is a big step towards bolstering efficiency in our network and reducing our emissions at the same time."
UPS has about 102,000 delivery drivers on the road each day. 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.
"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 drone used in yesterday's test was the Workhorse HorseFly UAV Delivery system. It is an octocopter delivery drone that is integrated with Workhorse's line of electric and hybrid delivery lorries. The drone docks on the roof of the delivery lorry. A cage suspended beneath the drone, extends through a hatch into the lorry. A UPS driver inside loads a package into the cage and presses a button on a touch screen, sending the drone on a pre-set autonomous route to an address.
The battery-powered drone recharges while it's docked. It has a 30-minute flight time and can carry a package weighing up to 4.5kg.
For this test, Workhorse preset the route for the drone. But in the future, routes could be determined by UPS's Orion on-road integrated optimisation and navigation proprietary routing software.
"It's wonderful to see this technology applied in such a practical way," said Stephen Burns, Workhorse founder and CEO. "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."
UPS has been testing automation and robotics technologies, including drones, for years. Last September, UPS staged a mock delivery of urgently needed medicine from Massachusetts to an island nearly 5km off the Atlantic coast. Additionally, UPS is using drones for humanitarian relief, partnering with third-party organisations to deliver life-saving blood and vaccines to hard-to-reach locations in Rwanda. UPS also is using drones to check inventory on high storage shelves in its warehouses.
Unlike all the previous tests, the most recent UPS drone test shows how drones might assist in making non-urgent residential deliveries as part of the day-to-day operation.
Last year, the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issued small unmanned aircraft systems rules that allow for some commercial use of drones and paved the way for future expanded applications. UPS was one of 35 selected from a cross section of key stakeholders to serve on the FAA's drone advisory committee. The committee will provide the FAA recommendations on key drone integration issues that will ultimately allow for safe and secure operations of drones within the National Air Space System.