UPS Begins Testing Drone Package Delivery to Remote Locations

September 23, 2016 by Jerry Hirsch, @Jerryhirsch

Shipping giant UPS has launched testing of drones to deliver packages to remote and difficult to reach locations.

UPS begun the tests Thursday using a drone from Danvers, Mass.-based CyPhy Works to stage a mock delivery of medicine from Beverly, Mass. to Children’s Island, which is about three miles off the Atlantic coast.

“Our focus is on real-world applications that benefit our customers,” said Mark Wallace, UPS senior vice president of global engineering and sustainability. “We think drones offer a great solution to deliver to hard-to-reach locations in urgent situations where other modes of transportation are not readily available.”

Earlier this year, UPS said it was teaming with Zipline, a Half Moon Bay, Calif.­-based robotics company, and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, to explore how drones can safely and effectively deliver medicines such as vaccines and blood across the world.

“There is increasing interest in the use of drones both from a delivery perspective as well as within warehousing and yard management,” said Cathy Roberson, head analyst for consulting firm Logistics Trends and Insights.

Rival shipping firm DHL, for example, has a run similar test of pharmaceutical deliveries to remote locations in Germany.

“The use of drones for such purposes as that – to improve efficiencies as well as for humanitarian good as seen in Africa will continue to increase,” Roberson said. “The question is can regulators keep up or will they be in the way of such advancement.”

The Federal Aviation Administration issued rules in June governing the use of small commercial drones. The FAA regulations allow drones 55 pounds and under to fly during the day at altitudes lower than 400 feet. Drones can be operated into twilight hours if they have anti-collision lighting, the administration said.

UPS Drone Test

UPS drone test. (Photo: UPS)

Operators will have to obtain a certification lasting 24 months that requires they be at least 16 years old, pass an aviation knowledge exam and register their drone online.

For now, drones will have limited use in the U.S. for shipping and delivery services. The FAA requires unmanned drones must always be in sight of the operator. Control of the aircraft isn’t allowed from a moving vehicle.

The line-of-sight regulation makes most package delivery unfeasible, Mike Britt, director of maintenance and engineering for international operations at UPS, told earlier this year.

“If the drone’s got to be within the operator’s line of sight, our driver will have to get on the roof and control the drone. From a technical standpoint, we can launch a drone off a truck, and we can deliver packages,” Britt said.

Many in the industry expect the FAA to eventually loosen the regulations. Retailers and delivery companies banking on drones say the technology will allow drivers to make more deliveries per hour without driving additional miles

Besides UPS, Amazon and DHL already are testing drones for deliveries.

Other commercial uses for drones include crop monitoring, power and pipeline inspection in hilly or mountainous terrain and antenna inspections.

UPS is experimenting with drones in warehouses in Louisville, Ky. and Venlo, Netherlands to check high storage racks to confirm stock or available space. The shipping company said it also plans to test the use of drones for facility monitoring and external airplane equipment inspection.

The FAA estimates that the drone industry could create more than 100,000 jobs and generate $82 billion for the U.S. economy in the next decade.

For Thursday’s test, UPS used CyPhy’s drone Persistent Aerial Reconnaissance and Communications, or PARC, drone. The battery-powered drone flies itself, it is durable, has night vision and features secure communications that cannot be intercepted or disrupted, UPS said.

In the mock scenario, the PARC drone successfully carried an asthma inhaler to a child at a camp on the island, which is not reachable by automobile.

“We’re thrilled to partner with UPS in this endeavor,” said Helen Greiner, CyPhy’s founder and chief technology officer. “Drone technology used in this way can save lives and deliver products and services to places that are difficult to reach by traditional transit infrastructures.”

UPS is a CyPhy investor, having participated in a $22 million round of funding for the startup last year.

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