Drones are cool but the logistics industry is still looking for ways to make the use of the technology feasible. This week, package delivery company UPS, working with truck-launched drone-maker Workhorse Group, tested drone technology for eventual use in rural delivery routes.
The successful test launched a drone from the top of a UPS package car (pictured below) to autonomously to home. The delivery driver can then continue the route to the next delivery and the drone returns to the vehicle.
The company conducted the test in Lithia, Fla. Although not currently planned for field usage, the technology test created a scenario that demonstrates how UPS might use drones in the future.
“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,” said 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.
The potential benefits are huge, especially in areas where delivery spots are spaced far apart. A reduction of just one mile per driver per day over one year can save UPS up to $50 million, the company estimated. UPS has about 66,000 delivery drivers on the road daily. Further, demand for drones is expected to grow substantially in the near future. In 2014, the global commercial drone market was estimated to be $552 million, with a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 15.9% through 2022, according to a recent report from Grand View Research.
U.S. commercial drone market, by application, 2012 - 2022 (USD Million) Source: Grand View Research
Further, rural delivery routes are the most expensive to serve, since they take more time and put more miles on the vehicle per delivery. While drones won’t replace drivers, they will increase efficiency. “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 Workhorse HorseFly UAV Delivery system was the model tested. The high-efficiency, octocopter delivery drone tis fully integrated with the electric/hybrid delivery truck. The drone has a 30-minute flight time and can carry a package weighing up to 10 pounds. When the battery-powered drone docks on the roof of the delivery truck, the driver can load a package into a cage that is suspended through a hatch in the truck. With a press of a button, the driver can send the drone on a preset autonomous route to an address. The drone can also be charged during docking.
“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.”
The technology still faces both regulatory and technology hurdles before being used in daily business. “It’s hard to speculate how far out we are from bringing this to reality. The technology is still improving and getting to where it needs to be,” a UPS spokesperson said. “There are also regulatory considerations. We want to be ready when the technology and regulations are there so we can be ready to get into that space.”
Last year, the U.S. 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 is in the thick of it with one of its people being selected as one of 35 key stakeholders to serve on the FAA’s drone advisory committee. The group will make recommendations to the FAA around how to allow for safe and secure drone operation.
— Hailey Lynne McKeefry, Editor in Chief, EBN