Shipping giant UPS launched its first test of a drone delivery package in residential areas on Monday.
The drone autonomously delivered a package to a rural home in Lithia, Fla., and then returned to a UPS vehicle while the truck driver continued along the route to make the next delivery.
The drone and the electric vehicle used in Monday’s test – the HorseFly UAV Delivery system – were built by Workhorse Group. The Ohio-based company is already working with UPS on other projects, including building hybrid-electric and all-electric delivery trucks.
“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, senior vice president of global engineering and sustainability at UPS.
The Horsefly drone weighs about 9.5 pounds, has a 30-minute flight time and can carry packages weighing up to 10 pounds, UPS said.
The drone works by docking onto the roof of the delivery truck, while a cage suspended beneath the drone extends through a hatch into the truck, allowing the driver to load packages into the cage. The driver then presses a button and launches the drone to deliver its next package.
While Workhouse preset the route for the drone test on Monday, UPS said that in the future, the HorseFly drone routes could be determined by using the company’s On-Road Integrated Optimization and Navigation, or ORION, its proprietary routing software.
Reducing the mileage UPS drivers drive by just one mile per driver per day over the course of one year using ORION can save the company approximately $50 million, according to UPS.
“This is a possible role UPS envisions for drones in the future,” the company said.
UPS said adding drones to its residential routes will serve as an aid to its drivers, but won’t replace them. The company currently has around 66,000 delivery drivers.
“Drivers are the face of our company, and that won’t change,” Wallace said. “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 e-commerce,” Wallace said.
The shipping giant has been testing automation and robotics technologies for years. UPS used drones to stage mock delivery of medicine from Beverly, Mass., to Children’s Island, which is about three miles off the Atlantic coast. The company has also used drones for humanitarian relief efforts to deliver blood in Rwanda.
Last year, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, FAA, issued rules governing the use of small commercial drones, allowing drones 55 pounds and under to fly during the day at altitudes lower than 400 feet. The FAA requires that unmanned drones must always be in sight of the operator and control of the aircraft isn’t allowed from a moving vehicle.