Mercedes-Benz to Show Drone Mothership Vision Van at CES

January 04, 2017 by Tiffany Hsu, @tiffkhsu

Mercedes-Benz Vans is at the Consumer Electronics Show this week showcasing its plans to automate and streamline last-mile delivery.

The Daimler unit is at the annual Las Vegas event for the first time exhibiting its Vision Van concept, designed to serve as a mobile distribution center and mothership of sorts to a fleet of shipping drones.

The sleek van, based on the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter model and first unveiled in September, is a kind of mash-up of delivery vehicles, smart cars and drones with a Daft Punk aesthetic.

The vehicle can roam silently and emissions-free for roughly 168 miles on a 75-kilowatt electric drive system and will carry eight delivery robots from British startup Starship Technologies.

Starship delivery drone

Starship delivery drone in London. (Photo: Starship)

Using algorithms to calculate optimal routes, the van will deposit robots laden with deliveries along certain stops. Once the robots drop off their packages, they will rendezvous autonomously with the van to be mechanically reloaded.

An automated rack system can pack 54 parcels into storage slots and determine which parcels are linked to certain addresses. The Vision Van can even slide its door out like a massive drawer to place parcels into the correct robot.

In addition to its partnership with Starship, which was launched in 2014 by the co-founders of video chat service Skype, Mercedes-Benz Vans is also working on a separate pilot project with Menlo Park drone startup Matternet. The idea is to use vans as landing platforms and docking stations for aerial drones.

And Mercedes-Benz Vans has yet another Silicon Valley initiative in the works, featuring a specialized unit that works on innovation and prototyping in a startup garage in Menlo Park.

Mercedes-Benz Vision Van

Rendering of Mecedes-Benz Vision Van with drones. (Photo: Mercedes-Benz)

“With digitization and the Internet of Things, we are currently once again experiencing an industrial and economic revolution,” said Mercedes-Benz Vans chief Volker Mornhinweg. “In an era of booming online commerce, the interplay of transport and digitization plays a vital role.”

The Vision Van is packed with a host of other features, including thorough digital connectivity and cloud-based control software. Drivers can operate the vehicle via joystick and also receive information — such as road conditions and drone details — on the sweeping arc of the dashboard.

Additional notifications are available from a synced smartwatch that shows delivery addresses, input codes for electronic lock systems and locations for secure drop-offs. The same information will appear on a data terminal inside the rear wall of the van’s cabin.

The van uses an LED display on its Black Panel radiator grille and rear to communicate with other drivers, notifying them when it is stopping, turning or releasing drones. Other LED lights incorporated into the stainless steel floor can signal parcel information and pedestrian approach.

Daimler — as well as Amazon, Google and a host of other companies experimenting with delivery drones — face many regulatory hurdles and public perception concerns ahead. Until then, they’re charging ahead with tests.

The Vision Van will be at the Mercedes-Benz booth at CES starting Thursday.

Related: Trucking Industry Gets a Glimpse of its Automated Future at CES 2017

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