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Will UPS get drone delivery right?


Will UPS get drone delivery right?

Ian Kerr

Dedicated listeners to the Postal Hub Podcast may have detected some skepticism on my part when it comes to drones.

Drone delivery seems to have been little more than a publicity stunt.

So I was prepared to be unimpressed about UPS's latest drone trial. "Here we go, another drone with a company logo taped to its side drifting about over a paddock," I thought.

Well, not quite. The idea UPS is pursuing is for the drone to deliver a package while the driver does other deliveries. And all this would be powered by ORION, UPS's route management tool.

We have lift off!

We have lift off!

How it works

The drone launches from the top of a specially fitted-out UPS vehicle. The driver loads the parcel into the drone, which then autonomously delivers a package to the address. Then the drone returns to the vehicle while the delivery driver continues along the route to make other deliveries.

"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, UPS senior vice president of global engineering and sustainability.

“Imagine a triangular delivery route where the stops are miles apart by road. Sending a drone from a package car to make just one of those deliveries can reduce costly miles driven.”

Well, as long as the driver doesn't take an age to load the package into the drone with the van's engine running, of course!

The drone docks on the roof of the delivery vehicle. A cage suspended beneath the drone, extends through a hatch into the main area of the van. The driver loads a package into the cage and presses a button on a touch screen, sending the drone on a preset autonomous route to an address.

A parcel is loaded into the cage from inside the van.

A parcel is loaded into the cage from inside the van.

Route optimisation

For the test, the drone's route was preset. But the plan is for routes to be determined by UPS’s On-Road Integrated Optimization and Navigation (ORION).

It's the integration with ORION that could prove the key difference between this and other drone delivery tests.

UPS has calculated that a reduction of just one mile per driver per day over one year can save the company up to $50 million. Obviously, the lower delivery density on rural routes means that rural deliveries are the most expensive.

Reduced emissions

A reduction in miles (or kilometres, as you prefer!) driven means less fuel consumed and reduced emissions. "This is a big step toward bolstering efficiency in our network and reducing our emissions at the same time," said Wallace.

The battery-powered drone recharges while it’s docked with the UPS vehicle. It has a 30-minute flight time and can carry a package weighing up to 4.5kg.

The launchpad vehicle

UPS carried out the test in co-operation with Workhorse Group, a battery-electric truck and drone developer. Workhorse built the drone and the electric UPS package car used in the test.

Can we take it seriously?

Now that UPS has uttered the magic word "ORION", we can probably take this seriously. It's now a question of cost:

  • Will UPS be able to make drone deliveries sufficiently cost-efficient?
  • What will the fuel savings be?
  • What about labour savings?

The other question is: will the public be prepared to accept drone deliveries? Check Episode 47 for the answer to that!



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