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February 27, 2017 3:15 AM, EST

UPS Tests Drone That Uses Delivery Truck as Its Home Base

UPS Inc.

This story appears in the Feb. 27 print edition of Transport Topics.

UPS Inc. completed a successful test of a truck-mounted delivery drone at a Florida blueberry farm last week, demonstrating how unmanned aerial devices might be used as part of the company’s residential delivery service and as a way to cut costs by reducing the number of miles traveled by UPS trucks to make deliveries in rural locations.

The drone used in the Lithia, Florida, demonstration was launched from the roof of a truck provided by Workhorse Group, a company based in Ohio that has been working for some time on developing a line of drone-equipped hybrid electric delivery trucks.

“For our team, this is a Kitty Hawk moment,” Workhorse Group CEO Stephen Burns said in a blog post after the demonstration Feb. 21. “A truck-launched drone that complies with all the FAA rules and brings efficiency to the process — and it flies for pennies a mile in electricity. We really feel it’s going to find its way into the delivery space.”

For its part, UPS has tested the use of drones to deliver medical supplies to an island off the coast of Massachusetts and to deliver vaccines and blood to remote locations in Rwanda.

“This test is different than anything we’ve done with drones so far,” said Mark Wallace, senior vice president of global engineering and sustainability for UPS. “It has implications for future deliveries, especially in rural locations where our package cars often have to travel miles to make a single delivery. This is a big step toward bolstering efficiency in our network and reducing our emissions at the same time.”

In a blog post about the drone test, Wallace noted, “It’s important to remember that drones can’t ever replace our drivers, who offer a level of service and human interaction that our customers tell us they value, respect and trust. We need a human touch in many situations. That will never change.”

But the drones could save those drivers time. UPS has about 66,000 delivery drivers on the road each day, and saving one mile per driver per day over one year can save up to $50 million, company officials said.

The battery-powered Workhorse HorseFly UAV Delivery drone weighs 18 pounds and can fly for up to 30 minutes with a load of up to 10 pounds. The drone docks on the roof of the truck with a driver inside loading the package into a cage suspended below the drone. The drone is programmed to depart from and return to the truck even if the truck has changed locations during the drone’s delivery window, UPS officials said.

UPS also has been testing drones inside warehouses at its package hubs in Louisville, Kentucky, and the Netherlands as a way to check inventory and to inspect airplane equipment.

Separately, UPS officials confirmed to Transport Topics that the company will expand its ground package delivery service on Saturdays in response to the growing volume of e-commerce shipments. The company has been providing Saturday delivery in Atlanta, Philadelphia and Los Angeles as a test since 2016.

By the end of this year, UPS expects to provide pickup and delivery service on Saturdays to areas covering half of the U.S. population, spokeswoman Peggy Gardner said. “We expect this to help smooth out the volume at the beginning of each week … and it increases UPS capacity to handle additional volume with no additional investment in buildings, vehicles or trucks.”

The move will add about 6,000 jobs, Gardner said.