Move over, Amazon. UPS isn’t giving up its grip on delivery services just yet. In fact, UPS is testing its own drone delivery system – and this one can be based anywhere a UPS truck can roam.
One of the toughest challenges for delivery services is getting to hard-to-reach customers in rural areas. These customers often live on sprawling farmland with their main homes some distance from the main road. That means more fuel, time, and energy per delivery.
UPS’ possible solution: a drone delivery system that carries packages by air from the truck to the destination.
Comparisons to Amazon Air
Amazon Air is Amazon’s solution-in-testing for drone delivery. It takes packages from fulfillment centers to its customers’ front doors. It has been in active testing in rural parts of the United Kingdom. So far, Amazon Air has a small handful of customers taking advantage of the service.
The idea is simple. You order something off Amazon and the item is packaged and placed in a delivery drone for drop off at your front door in as little as 30 minutes. On the surface, this looks like the most convenient way to shop.
Unfortunately, this solution’s range is limited to the vicinity of an Amazon distribution center. While there are many of these around the United States, there aren’t nearly enough to handle the demands of speedy local delivery beyond their immediate surroundings. A drone’s battery life is limited as it is without needing to be light enough to handle the added weight of a package. Keeping the distance between the launch point and the destination as short as possible is a must.
This is where UPS’ solution would have a distinct advantage. A driver can park their truck at the entrance of a neighborhood or rural area and launch drones from the top of the truck. In a sense, the UPS truck becomes a mobile fulfillment center.
There is no telling when or if we will actually see either Amazon Air or the UPS drone delivery service in actual use in the United States. Regulatory restrictions remain in a state of constant flux, and each state has its own set of ordinances and licensing requirements that further complicate a widespread rollout.
As of right now, UPS is only testing the prototype system in Lithia, FL, a small rural area with a population of just over 8,000.
There is also the barrier of the drone technology itself. Sense and avoidance systems which help drones autonomously identify and avoid obstacles are still in their infancy. A rogue drone running into a power line accidentally would be a bad thing.
There is also, of course, the human response to seeing drones pass overhead. We’re still not quite used to seeing them in the sky and for some of us, these expensive devices make excellent target practice.
There are clear incentives for UPS to push that timeline forward. For one, this type of delivery tool could save the company millions of dollars every year in additional fuel required to drive what is often several miles to make a single delivery. Being able to launch one or more drones from a truck while it continues to make rounds is also a significant time saver.
Another positive for UPS is that it, as a company, is on the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration’s drone advisory committee. This committee is responsible for creating the regulations that would give these autonomous deliveries the green light.