Mercedes' self-driving van sheds light on the future of drone delivery

Business Insider – Mercedes-Benz showed off a self-driving concept van at CES that serves as a hub and charging station for drones, TechCrunch reports.

The automaker partnered with drone manufacturer Matternet to develop the van, which it unveiled in September. While the van merely represents an idea and likely won't be deployed anytime soon, it could shed some light on the competing models of drone delivery when such services become legally and technologically feasible.

Here are two such models that have emerged:

  • Automotive-supported delivery. This involves utilizing vehicles from which drones would launch out of carrying packaged goods for delivery. This model, which is the one that Mercedes and Matternet are currently exploring with their concept van, could enable speedy deliveries as the drones wouldn't have to travel as far and because the vans could be outfitted for fast turnaround.
  • Warehouse-based delivery. In this model, drones would be housed in a port of sorts from which they could take off to make their deliveries. This is similar to what's being pioneered in Rwanda, where UPS and drone startup Zipline are delivering blood and other medical supplies via drones. While this model may not allow as quick of a turnaround for deliveries, drones have access to more goods and resources in a warehouse, so if a drone breaks down, for example, it may not need to go somewhere else to be fixed.

The model providers seek to adopt will likely impact the type of drones that are developed. Due to its reliance on a vehicle, a drone being used in the automotive model would require only short-range capabilities, making a quadcopter — which specializes in short-range flights — a good fit. Conversely, if a drone needs to fly a longer distance to make a delivery, a long-range drone, like an Alphabet’s Project Wing drone, would be more ideal. Monitoring the approaches drone delivery providers favor will be important as these services take off.

Drones turned the corner in 2015 to become a popular consumer device, while a framework for regulation that legitimizes drones in the US began to take shape. Technological and regulatory barriers still exist to further drone adoption.

Drone manufacturers and software providers are quickly developing technologies like geo-fencing and collision avoidance that will make flying drones safer. The accelerating pace of drone adoption is also pushing governments to create new regulations that balance safety and innovation.

Safer technology and better regulation will open up new applications for drones in the commercial sector, including drone delivery programs like Amazon’s Prime Air and Google’s Project Wing initiatives.

Image citation: Steven Woo, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0