On a sparsely populated patch of land outside Tampa, Florida, UPS showed off on Monday a first-of-its-kind test for the 109-year-old shipping company.
UPS took a drone built into one of its iconic brown trucks to complete a delivery in Lithia, Florida, using a truck and drone from electric vehicle-maker Workhorse.
The drone flew out of the truck's retractable roof to make a drop-off along a preset autonomous route, while the driver headed elsewhere to make another shipment. The drone then rendezvoused with the truck down the road, docked back on the roof and recharged."This is a Kitty Hawk moment,"
Steve Burns, founder and CEO of Workhorse, said ahead of the test, referring to the Wright brothers' first historic flights in 1903. "When people ask, 'When did drones begin entering the delivery space?' I think it'll be Monday. It should signal a huge change."
The test offers another small step toward making delivery drones a possibility for mainstream use, which could lead to faster and cheaper shipping. And as more and more people buy online, such drones could help alleviate strains in the shipping infrastructure that have already cropped up, especially during the winter holidays.
The drones could also save drivers gas and time by cutting down on stops, especially in rural areas where drop-offs are often miles apart. Trimming just one mile per driver per day would save UPS up to $50 million a year, the company said. The environmental impact could also be significant, though the company hadn't crunched those numbers yet.
Outside of controlled tests, the Federal Aviation Administration doesn't allow for most forms of delivery drones, so don't expect a package-toting flying object to buzz overhead anytime soon. Burns, though, argues that Workhorse's drones that operate with delivery trucks and drivers could roll out publicly as soon as this year.
To avoid tighter FAA regulations, some drone developers have gone overseas. Last year, Amazon started a small pilot program of delivery drones in rural England and shipper DHL tested drones in southern Germany. Chinese e-commerce company JD.com has been working on delivery drones in rural China since early last year.
UPS, too, has worked on a handful of drone projects as it continues to learn how to use the devices. In September, UPS made a mock delivery of medicine from Beverly, Massachusetts, to an island three miles off the Atlantic coast. The company has also helped delivery medical supplies in Rwanda and uses drones to check inventory in its warehouses.
Because delivery-drone makers still need to tackle a hornet's nest of logistical problems, market researcher Gartner expects delivery drones will amount to less than 1 percent of the global commercial drones market three years from now. Instead, most commercial drones will be used for mapping and construction-site inspection, Gartner said.
UPS hasn't scheduled any additional tests with Loveland, Ohio-based Workhorse's drones, though UPS said it plans to keep testing delivery scenarios.
"We're studying and understanding the opportunities that this will provide for us," said Mark Wallace, UPS senior vice president of global engineering and sustainability. "So we will continue to look toward the future."
There is concern that both drones and self-driving cars will eventually put thousands of drivers out of work. Asked about this issue, Wallace said that UPS' 66,000 delivery drivers are the trusted faces of the company and that UPS doesn't expect drones will replace them.
"It really moves us into understanding how the technology can assist our service providers," he said of the tests. "This will not replace our service providers."
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