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Mercedes-Benz: the mothership


Mercedes-Benz: the mothership

Ian Kerr

When I first heard about Mercedes-Benz's van that would launch delivery drones, I couldn't help but think of Homer Simpson when he said:

Oh yeah, what are you gonna do? Release the dogs? Or the bees? Or the dogs with bees in their mouth and when they bark they shoot bees at you?

It seemed to me that Mercedes-Benz was plotting the delivery van equivalent of a dog that could shoot bees out of its mouth. 

Mercedes-Benz's Vision Van has two parcel delivery drones on the roof as well as a fully automated cargo space system.

Imagine how many dents a van like this would have after its first day on the road in Rome.

Imagine how many dents a van like this would have after its first day on the road in Rome.

As I may have mentioned a hundred or so times on the podcast, I'm a bit skeptical about the commercial applications of drones. But let's put that to one side, and revel in the news that the van will host two fully integrated, autonomous delivery drones on the roof. I'm sure that the Montague St Bridge in South Melbourne would shear those drones right off, no worries whatsoever.

The drones are capable of autonomous flight via GPS and sensors, have a range of 20 km, and a carrying capacity of around 2 kg.

A drone landing pad is integrated into the van's roof, and drones are automatically loaded by the Vision Van's cargo space system.

It was no big surprise then to learn that Mercedes-Benz has been trialling a van filled not with drones but delivery robots.

Starship Technologies entered a partnership with Mercedes-Benz Vans last year to test a transportation system integrating specifically adapted vans with autonomous delivery robots to create greater delivery efficiencies.

This month Mercedes-Benz announced it has decided to invest in Starship Technologies.

Returning to the van that shoots robots out of its side door, a Sprinter was used as the prototype mobile loading and transport hub for eight robots.

"The robot can only travel short distances under its own power," says Volker Mornhinweg, Head of Mercedes-Benz Vans.

Well Volker, this is very disappointing. I am a keen student of robotics, and I know that R2D2 travelled great distances across the dunes of Tatooine, and BB8 rolled for miles and miles across the bleak terrain of Jakku.

"The introduction of the van as a mobile hub widens the operational radius of the robots significantly, while also rendering superfluous the cost-intensive construction and operation of decentralised warehouses," says Mornhinweg.

Earlier, on the flight deck of an Imperial Star Destroyer...

Earlier, on the flight deck of an Imperial Star Destroyer...

Initial pilot tests for the van/robot combination are planned for Europe. The plan is to begin widespread testing with one or several logistics partners. The launch of the pilot project in a real-world environment is scheduled to take place later this year.

But will this delivery model replace a van driven by a human and packed to the rafters with parcels? No, is the short answer.

A van loaded with eight robots may even be able to deliver to eight addresses in one street in a time comparable to what a single human would take to deliver eight parcels one after the other, but only if there are no stairs or doorbells involved.

So if the van/robot combination can't replace the current delivery model, could van/robots supplement it? Maybe. But those robots will need security. We need dogs that shoot bees out of their mouths when they bark to protect our autonomous delivery vehicles.

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