On a blueberry farm in Lithia in the eastern part of Hillsborough County, two technology companies have been quietly testing some of the most advanced drone technology in the world.
The United Parcel Service (UPS), and the drone company Workhorse, have been testing an autonomous delivery system for about a week now, laying the framework for what could soon become a common form of package deliveries.
UPS announced the tests Tuesday morning at an investors meeting. ABC Action News was allowed to view the drone in action on Monday in Lithia with the promise to wait until investors were notified of the successful tests before reporting.
In its current iteration, the autonomous drone launches from the top of a UPS package truck, then delivers a package to a home before returning to the UPS truck while the delivery driver continues along the route to make a separate delivery. The drone delivery system is included in new electric UPS trucks, which are developed by Workhorse, an Ohio-based company. The delivery process is controlled in part by a GPS navigation system.
"This test is different than anything we’ve done with drones so far. It has implications for future deliveries, especially in rural locations where our package cars often have to travel miles to make a single delivery,” explains Mark Wallace, the UPS senior vice president of global engineering and sustainability. “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 deliveries can reduce costly miles driven. This is a big step toward bolstering efficiency in our network and reducing our emissions at the same time."
UPS wouldn't give a timeline about how soon they believed they would start using drones for package deliveries, but executives made it clear that the rollout was not imminent, as the technology is still being developed, and regulations are still too restrictive.
Still, the tests in Lithia aimed to provide an example of a real-world scenario UPS executives believe is coming in the near-future. They tell ABC Action News that the most expensive deliveries are in rural areas where drivers must travel further distances, thus taking more time. Deliveries to homes in rural areas also require more gasoline to complete the delivery. Drone-deliveries could cut down on costs, says UPS, by saving gasoline and time, a savings which might also be passed down to the customer, or at the very least, help UPS keep up with the growing demand for home deliveries.
What's more, UPS and Workhorse point out that, right now, the drone technology is best-suited for sparsely-populated environments, as more densely-populated environments present more hazards for the drone; UPS says their drone-delivery plans right now only include rural environments. Other hazards for the drone include weather, like rain and wind.
Right now, the drone can only delivery packages weighing up to 10 pounds. The drone used in the test on Monday will only travel up to about 100 feet in the air for a delivery.
Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations only allow drones to go no more than 400 feet in the air, although those regulations could soon change.
UPS is on an FAA stakeholders advisory committee, a group of businesses trying to influence the way the federal government restricts drone use. One restrictive rule right now is that a pilot must be on hand at all times, and if there is a landing on the ground, a spotter must be in that location. For UPS to implement their autonomous drone deliveries, those restrictions would need to be removed.
UPS executives acknowledge the public's concerns about safety and privacy when it comes to drones, and tell ABC Action News that is why they are working closely with the FAA to make rules that require drone operators to prove safety and privacy before expanding use.
When it comes to concerns about air safety, UPS executives point out that UPS is equally concerned since they operate one of the large cargo airlines in the world, UPS Airlines headquartered in Louisville, Kentucky.
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. Additionally, UPS is using drones extensively for humanitarian relief, partnering with third-party organizations to deliver life-saving blood and vaccines to hard-to-reach locations in Rwanda. UPS also is utilizing drones to check inventory on high storage shelves in its warehouses.
UPS also promises that drones are not about to displace UPS drivers, which they call "the face of our company."
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