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The future of delivery

UPS workhorse drone

Drone delivery is one of the hottest topics – if not the most heavily discussed – in transportation and logistics circles these days. People ask me all the time how drones might change the delivery landscape and what we’re doing to leverage another disruptive technology.

There's plenty of speculation out there about a future where drones fill our skies. At UPS, we don't speculate. We study and we strategize. There's definitely a lot to learn and plenty of reason for excitement about drones.

Just this week, we fueled the excitement ourselves when we successfully tested a residential package delivery by a drone launched from the roof of a UPS delivery truck. Both the drone and the delivery truck were made by Ohio-based Workhorse Group.

The drone, which operates autonomously, launches from the truck, delivers a package to a home and then returns to the delivery truck while the driver continues along the route to make a separate delivery.

In this groundbreaking test, we showcased how drones might reduce miles driven while creating operating efficiencies. We are eager to explore how any technology can make us smarter, faster and more sustainable.

It's what we've done throughout our nearly 110-year history. Whether it's gondolas in Venice, electric bicycles in Hamburg or motorcycles in Latin America, we're always looking for new and better ways to get items to your doorstep.

Drones could be another innovative leap for UPS, one that improves our business, increases customer satisfaction and diminishes our environmental footprint.

Plenty of questions remain, but let's take a look at this progress toward wide-scale drone delivery.

A radical test

This collaboration with Workhorse is different than anything we've ever done with drones. It has implications for future deliveries, especially in rural locations where homes are far apart and our drivers often have to travel long distances to make a single delivery.

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 stops can reduce costly miles driven and vehicle emissions.

It's not hard to see the economic imperative for drone use. Really, it's simple math.

Drones could aid drivers at various points along their routes, saving time and meeting growing customer service needs in the age of e-commerce.

But 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.

Recent history with drones

UPS has been testing automation and robotics technologies, including drones, for years.

Last September, UPS staged a mock delivery of urgently needed medicine from Beverly, Mass., to an island three miles off the Atlantic coast.

UPS also has used drones extensively for humanitarian relief, partnering with third-party organizations to deliver life-saving medical supplies to hard-to-reach locations in Rwanda. Initiatives like these demonstrate the benefits of using drones to deliver packages in areas that don't have established transportation infrastructure.

UPS also is testing drones to check inventory on high storage shelves in its warehouses. Unlike all of the previous tests, however, the most recent UPS drone test shows how the technology might assist with residential deliveries.

Hard-to-reach areas

Our initial experiments focused on hard-to-reach areas. The areas may be difficult to access because of damaged infrastructure. Or they could be remote locations like islands without regularly scheduled ferry service.

Dense urban areas create challenges that may make drones less attractive - tall buildings and lack of adequate landing locations, among other issues. So, we're looking closely at rural areas first.

In fact, rural areas may have the most operational need for drones. These are places where UPS drivers have the longest routes with lower so-called "stop density," compared with urban areas where we can drop off many items at one address.

Remaining questions

Last year, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issued small unmanned aircraft systems rules that permitted some commercial use of drones and paved the way for expanded applications.

UPS is proud to serve on the FAA's drone advisory committee. The committee will provide the FAA recommendations on key drone integration issues that ultimately will allow safe and secure operations of drones within the National Air Space System.

While the concept of commercial package delivery by drone may not be far away, enacting the appropriate regulations is complex. UPS test deliveries, for example, abide by FAA line-of-sight regulations.

Our latest drone test isn't necessarily how we'll integrate drones into our operation. We see it as a building block for continuous UPS innovation.

What excites us is the potential for drones to aid drivers at various points along their routes, helping them save time and miles – and making their job easier.

While some companies may be looking to drones to increase speed of delivery – to satiate the I-need-it-now consumer appetite – we think that's only part of the potential.

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