UPS tests delivery drones, insists robots won't replace drivers

A UPS truck was equipped with Workhorse's drone delivery system, but drivers will still remain central to the business.

UPS successfully tested delivery drones this week, but the drones won't replace drivers anytime soon.

"Drivers are the face of our company, and that won't change," said Mark Wallace, UPS senior vice president of global engineering and sustainability, in a statement. "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 ecommerce."

The iconic brown delivery trucks were outfitted with a HorseFlydrone delivery system made by electric delivery truck OEM Workhorse. The system, which first debuted in August 2017, is a more cautious and achievable version of the full-scale delivery drone scheme that Amazon has proposed.

Companies such as 7-Eleven and Domino's have done some exciting drone delivery demonstrations, but they ultimately seem more like marketing stunts than field research. Horsefly, on the other hand, is a moderate approach that could be implemented much sooner.

The idea is to focus on rural routes, which are the most expensive deliveries because stops are miles apart from each other. Horsefly treats drones as tools instead of replacements for delivery drivers. A drone launches from the top of a UPS truck and autonomously delivers a package to a home. Meanwhile, the delivery driver can continue along the route to make another delivery, because the drone will autonomously return to the truck and dock itself recharging.

In an email interview with ZDNet, John Dodero, VP of Industrial Engineering for UPS, explained:

Our initial tests focused on deliveries to hard-to-reach areas. Now we are exploring how we can use drones in our day-to-day operations, and we are testing first in rural areas.

Clearly, dense urban geographies create challenges that may make drones less attractive (buildings impediments, lack of adequate landing locations, etc.). So, we're looking more closely at rural areas first. In fact, rural areas are where we think we may have the most operational need for drones. These are places where UPS drivers have the longest routes and the lowest "stop density," as opposed to urban areas where we have higher stop density. As a result, rural areas are attractive for UPS when it comes to testing drones because we believe we have the most to gain from an operational efficiency standpoint.

UPS rural drone test

Image: UPS

The Workhorse drone is an octocopter that can carry packages weighing up to 10 pounds, which covers the most common residential deliveries. If the drone's sensors detect that it is too close to an unexpected obstacle, a propeller will turn off, but it can still keep flying with the remaining propellers. It can fly as fast as 50mph and has a five-mile range, although current Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) rules require commercial drones to remain in a pilot's line of sight.

"The timing for when regulations will change is unknown at this time, but UPS is testing now to be ready when that time comes," said Dodero.

Adding drones to delivery trucks should the total number of miles that are driven, which saves the company money and reduces emissions. Eventually, the drones could also be integrated with UPS's proprietary routing software, ORION (On-Road Integrated Optimization Navigation). The software uses data from customers, drivers, and vehicles to plan the most efficient delivery routes.

UPS has already established a relationship with Workhorse by adopting a fleet of its electric trucks last year. It's also not the first time that UPS has experimented with drones. The logistics company has used drones to deliver essential supplies to Rwanda, to check inventory on high warehouse shelves, and to demonstrate how medicine could be delivered to islands. UPS is one of 35 stakeholders serving on the FAA's drone advisory committee.

With the efficiency that drones and ultimately autonomous vehicles could provide, we were skeptical of the claim that robots won't replace drivers.

Still, Dodero said, "UPS drivers are a key part of the success of the company. We are exploring the use of drones as a potential means to increase the efficiency of our drivers." He added: "Additionally, drones might offer an increased UPS capacity to deliver packages on certain types of routes that are harder to access than others. But this still requires further analysis, especially given the recent FAA rules in the United States. Again, drivers are central to our business."