UPS, Workhorse Group make successful autonomous drone test

UPS has successfully tested a drone that launches from the top of one of its brown vans, autonomously delivers packages and then returns to the vehicle while the van moves on to the next delivery. The drone delivery took place this Monday in Lithia, Florida.

The test was conducted in collaboration with drone manufacturing company Workhorse Group, an Ohio-based developer of battery-powered electric trucks and drones, which claims its product can complete last-mile deliveries for mere cents per mile. With 66,000 delivery drivers on the road each day, UPS says that a reduction of just one mile per driver, per day, would save the company up to US$50 million per year.

UPS Florida Drone 7

A UPS delivery worker loads the drone from below prior to takeoff

“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.

Wallace explained that the deliveries could be operated along a “triangular delivery route, where the stops are miles apart by road.” Drone deliveries would allow drivers to avoid driving up to individual drop-off points, thus reducing miles driven. “This is a big step toward bolstering efficiency in our network and reducing our emissions at the same time,” he said.

In this week’s test, the drone made one delivery while the driver continued down the road to make another. UPS said it hopes the drones will move into this capacity, however, current FAA restrictions to “line-of-sight” operation of drones still hamper the sort of autonomy that these deliveries require.

The delivery operated as follows: A cage suspended under the drone lowers into the truck, where a UPS driver loads a package. Once secured, the drone starts on a preset autonomous route to the delivery address. Following delivery, the drone navigates back to the truck, which has moved on to the next delivery in the interim.

The battery-powered HorseFly drone recharges while docked. It has a 30-minute-maximum flight time and can carry a package weighing up to 10 pounds.

In the future, routes could be determined by UPS’ On-Road Integrated Optimization and Navigation (ORION), the company’s proprietary routing software, rather than being programmed in advance, as was the case during this week’s tests.

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 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.

Below is a brief video of yesterday’s test:

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