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Intelligent Machines

Drones Get Set to Piggyback on Delivery Vans

Turning vans into rolling distribution hubs for package-dropping robots could greatly improve the efficiency of delivery networks.

Delivery drones are being proposed as carriers of everything from drugs and blood to Amazon orders and pizza. But new collaborations between Mercedes-Benz and the drone makers Matternet and Starship Technologies suggest that vans may remain an integral part of the delivery network for some time to come.

A new Mercedes-Benz concept vehicle—which goes by the awkward name Vision Van—has landing areas on its roof for drones. Inside, there would be automated systems to load the aircraft and swap out their flat batteries. The whole thing would use autonomous Matternet drones—such as its also newly announced M2—presumably allowing the van to make other stops as the drone made its own delivery.

Meanwhile, the automaker is also planning a so-called Robovan with Starship, which makes six-wheeled autonomous delivery robots that are already being tested in London. A “mothership" van would ferry eight such robots, deploying them to deliver 400 packages in the final leg of the delivery process. Starship claims that it could increase the number of parcels delivered during a nine-hour shift by as much much as 120 percent.

The moves make sense as a way to improve the efficiency of the “last mile” of delivery networks. Running drones on long journeys back and forth from a fixed distribution center seems implausible—range alone would limit reach, and setting up many such facilities would prove costly. There’s also the fact that drones are only good for carrying small loads—Matternet’s can haul 4.4 pounds, for example.

Using a van as a mobile distribution hub could dramatically reduce these problems. In an area dense with delivery addresses, the autonomous drones could be set on their way to ferry small packages while the van’s driver delivers heavier parcels to the rest of the neighborhood. It’s also possible that a drone could fly a last-minute package to a van situated at the extreme of its range, for the driver to deliver further afield by hand.

The arrangement with Starship figures to help by reducing the number of encounters with bewildered pedestrians, and cutting back on the chance of vandalism.

There is, of course, that small matter of regulation to worry about. While new federal rules in the U.S. have opened the floodgates to many drone-related businesses and services, companies must still obtain special exemptions if they wish to fly over crowds of people or beyond the vision of an operator. Even Matternet’s extensive safety measures—including emergency parachutes and autonomy systems that mean it never deviates from pre-authorized paths—won’t allow it to skirt those restrictions.

But when companies do finally start using drones to ship goods, don’t assume that you’ll have seen the last of the delivery truck out on the street.

(Read more: “This Plucky Robot Will Blaze a Trail Carrying Pizza,” “Now You Can Finally Use Your Drone to Make Money,” “Drones Set to Deliver Medicine to Remote Parts of the U.S.”)

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