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Another Dividend of Self-Driving Cars: Autonomous Van and Drone Package Delivery

Much has been made of a future in which Amazon uses drones to deliver packages, but the race to self-driving cars might produce its own take on drone package delivery. TechCrunch reported the California-based drone-technology company Matternet is developing a package-delivery system teaming the autonomous Mercedes-Benz Vision concept van with package-toting drones.

Many experts watching the growth of technology supporting autonomous cars are convinced we’ll see autonomous buses, taxi cabs and delivery trucks before our streets are awash in fully self-driving cars. Mercedes-Benz leaped into the breech with its recently unveiled Vision electric van, which appears to be ideally suited for the van/drone approach to package delivery.

According to Matternet, Mercedes-Benz parent company Daimler AG committed to a $562 million investment in the startup over the next five years to bring the van/drone idea to market.

The Idea

Matternet touts its plan as an end-to-end platform for last-mile delivery. An autonomous delivery van, loaded with packages, is dispatched on a predetermined route. Arriving at its first delivery point, the van’s robotics load a package into a drone’s container. The drone then flies to the package’s final destination, delivers it and returns to the van to exchange its battery and load up for the next delivery. Such a system would allow deliveries to destinations hard to reach on foot, but also speed up normal deliveries by aiding the human element or even removing it from the process entirely.

In essence, Matternet’s cloud technology integrates with Mercedes-Benz’s van routing software, allowing end-to-end control of the supply chain.

The Van

Concepts are just that: concepts. The ones that do actually make the transition to production often have little in common with the originals. Keeping that in mind, the Vision concept is an all-electric urban hauler. Mercedes-Benz claims the Vision, which is powered by a 75-kWh electric-drive unit, will have a range of up to 168 miles on a full charge.

With its fully automated cargo system, the Vision will basically be a mini warehouse on wheels. Inside, robots will manage the packages, notifying recipients of deliveries and updating command central back at the business as to the van’s progress. The robots will also load the next package on the drone or hand it off to a human, if one is involved.

The Drone

Actually, the concept Mercedes-Benz showed at Vision’s unveiling had two drones perched on its roof. More than likely, the drone involved will be the Matternet M2, which the company just introduced. Not only did Matternet develop the drones, it developed the technology integrated into the roof of the van as well, allowing for precision landing and automatic payload and battery exchange.

What it means to you: More often than not, delivery delays crop up during the last mile of the process. Getting the item from the local receiving warehouse to your doorstep is where things often bog down. A fully automated van/drone system would do away with most obstacles, speeding up delivery of your order.

Russ Heaps
Russ Heaps is an author specializing in automotive, financial and travel news. For nearly 35 years he has covered the automotive industry for newspapers, magazines and internet websites. His resume includes The Palm Beach Post, Miami Herald, The Washington Times and numerous other daily newspapers through syndication. He edited Auto World magazine, and helped create and edit NOPI Street... Read More about Russ Heaps

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