UPS is testing drone deliveries, but don't expect to see one soon

These unmanned flying devices could shorten drivers' routes and save UPS a ton of money, while helping rural shoppers get their packages. But their commercial use is far off.

Brian Snyder/Reuters
A drone, made by CyPhy Works, delivers a UPS package on Children's Island off the coast of Beverly, Mass., on Sept. 22, 2016. Despite such demonstrations, the first commercial uses of drones are more likely in monitoring crops, property, and infrastructure.

UPS has now delivered a residential package via drone, officially adding Big Brown to the list of companies experimenting with autonomous deliveries.

Here's the lowdown on UPS drone deliveries: the reasons they could help UPS, how they work, and why you shouldn't expect one anytime soon.

Why the UPS Drone Tests Are Important

Plenty of companies have attempted to use delivery drones, with commitment levels running the gamut from "marketing stunt" to "serious experiment." Google deployed burritos from ChipotleAmazon is experimenting with drones in the U.K., and Chinese e-retailer JD.com is operating a delivery fleet of more than 30 drones.

But two things make the UPS experiment stand out. First, instead of operating from a fixed distribution center, the UPS drone launched from the top of a delivery truck. While the drone delivered an off-route package, the delivery driver continued her route; the drone caught up later.

Second, UPS' drone experiment could save the company a lot of money. According to UPS, shortening its drivers' routes by an average of a mile per day can save the company up to $50 million annually. And rural routes, for which UPS envisions using drone delivery, are particularly expensive.

"Imagine a triangular delivery route where the stops are miles apart by road," Mark Wallace, UPS' senior VP of global engineering, said in a press release. "Sending a drone from a package car to make just one of those deliveries can reduce costly miles driven."

How the Drone Deliveries Work

UPS is using Workhorse Group's HorseFly octocopter. The HorseFly has a 30-minute flight time, can carry payloads of up to 10 pounds, and features GPS tracking, 4G connectivity, and an RF backup link in case the drone — or the truck — loses 4G coverage.

The HorseFly drone sits in an overhead compartment in the truck when not in use. When the driver is ready to send a package, he or she places the package in the drone's payload container and presses a button. The roof slides back, the drone takes off, and the driver continues on the regular route. After the drone's delivery run is complete, it returns to the truck and charges up for the next delivery.

In the test flight, the drone's route was preset. But UPS says in the future it could integrate drone operations into ORION, its proprietary route-planning tool.

Rules Bar Delivery Operations — For Now

Don't expect your packages to arrive by drone any time soon. The test flights weren't perfect, and even if UPS was ready to deploy drones today, the Federal Aviation Administration currently has a number of regulations that prevent commercial drone deliveries.

The FAA has granted Workhorse a temporary waiver to those rules, allowing the company to operate in a few rural areas. But there are many outstanding legal issues in the drone delivery industry, and it could be awhile before delivery drones see prime time.

This story originally appeared on DealNews.

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