The race to be the first company to airlift packages to your doorstep continues.
On Monday, UPS showed off new drone delivery technology that it's been developing with Workhorse Group, an Ohio-based manufacturing company. During the demonstration, which took place on a blueberry farm outside of Tampa, a drone took off from the specially equipped van's rooftop, then autonomously delivered a package to a nearby home's front door.
The van, which looks much like a standard UPS vehicle, allows the driver to place the package into the drone's grasp from inside the cabin, then press a button to send it off to its destination. A rooftop panel slides open to let the drone fly away, deliver its goods, then come back and charge up for its next delivery.
According to TechCrunch, which had reporters on the scene, the drone executed its mission flawlessly on the first attempt. The second run didn't go as well: The drone aborted its launch mid-flight, landed back on the van, and was almost crushed by the closing latch door. TechCrunch reported that the malfunction might have been caused by interference from reporters' on-site broadcast cameras.
Using drones for so-called last mile logistics could help delivery services like UPS and retailers like Amazon save big on costs. UPS says eliminating just one mile from each driver's daily route would save the company $50 million annually. It could help customers get their goods faster as well: Amazon says its goal is to be able to deliver packages by drone in under 30 minutes.
As cool and useful as it sounds, drone delivery is a long way from being deployed on a wide scale. Drones that are vulnerable to interference pose a big risk to people on the ground below--UPS's drone, which can carry a 10-pound package, weighs 9.5 pounds, so it could do a lot of damage if it crashed. And interference might not even be a rare occurrence if enterprising thieves find a way to use it to their benefit.
Drone companies also face huge regulatory hurdles. Currently, the FAA prohibits flight at night and higher than 400 feet. It also requires a pilot to be within eyesight of a drone at all times. (During UPS's test, the drone flew on a pre-programmed route, with a pilot at the ready nearby.) The goal is for these drones to eventually be able to fly autonomously--in UPS's case, they would launch and could be recalled with the press of a button.
Last year, due largely to America's restrictions, Seattle-based Amazon decided to start testing its drone delivery program in the U.K. instead of the United States. And UPS partnered with Zipline, a San Francisco-based drone startup, to deliver blood transfusions using autonomous drones in Rwanda.
The FAA does occasionally grant waivers, however. In September, Google's Project Wing launched a test pilot at Virginia Tech's campus, allowing it to use drones to deliver Chipotle burritos. The specially granted exception let the project use autonomous drones, though a pilot had to be ready to take over if needed, and the aircraft couldn't fly over people.
UPS told TechCrunch that any vehicle could be converted to a drone hub, so long as the landing gear and charging station are installed. The drones can currently fly for 30 minutes without recharging.