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Vans and drones...again


Vans and drones...again

Ian Kerr

Mercedes-Benz is getting serious about drone delivery. Well, serious enough to publicly announce a three-week pilot project it's running in partnership with US drone company Matternet and Swiss online marketplace siroop.

They're testing a van and drone-based system for on-demand delivery of e-commerce goods in Zurich. The pilot project started on 25 September.

Customers can order selected products (weighing up to 2kg and suitable for transport by drone) from siroop, for same-day delivery by drone. The drones are loaded directly at the merchant and fly to one of two Mercedes-Benz Vito vans equipped with precision landing technology.

The vans stop at one of four pre-defined “rendezvous points” around Zurich, where the van driver takes possession of the package and delivers it to the customer, while the drone returns to the retailer.

So this is different to what's being trialled by UPS, where the drone is loaded and launched from the UPS van for delivery to the customer's address while the UPS van is on its regular delivery route.

Can we take the pilot project in Zurich seriously?

Packages might be delivered faster, but is it practical and viable? Will the vans be idle while waiting for the drone? An express van might carry more than one consignment from the depot for delivery to the customer, while these mobile drone landing pads will be delivering one package at a time.

The pilot will run for seven hours per day, five days a week... in favourable weather conditions only, of course. Does it ever snow in Zurich?

The Matternet M2 drones used in the pilot have a range of up to 20km, carrying a 2kg payload. 

"This is the first time that a drone delivery network is operating in a major European city and the first time a van and drone network is operating anywhere in the world," says Andreas Raptopoulos, Founder and CEO of Matternet.

Dynamically synchronised drone fleets

Mercedes-Benz says the next step in the process will involve van fleets dynamically synchronised with drone fleets, whereby drone deliveries will be dynamically integrated into conventional delivery routes. This would mean that vans would no longer need to drive to a small number of fixed “rendezvous points” to receive a drone. Instead, the drone will find the van along its regular delivery route, thus allowing for urgent shipments to be integrated into existing delivery runs.

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