Yesterday, an autonomous drone landed on the roof of a Mercedes-Benz van in Zurich, successfully completing the first delivery of Switzerland’s aerial logistics network. The drone’s package contained some delicious coffee from Swiss e-commerce startup Siroop. The delivery was coordinated by logistics company Matternet, which says it hopes to eventually deliver lab samples like blood tests and other diagnostics flown between hospital facilities, clinics, and labs — all via drone.
Since 2015, Matternet and Daimler, the parent company of Mercedes-Benz, have been exploring the use of vans as rolling distribution hubs for aerial package delivery. According to the automaker’s “Vans and Drones” project:
This involves using an application to link up an independent system, in which drones are deployed as a means of transport, with the van. The drone locates the van via GPS. The van scans the airspace and transmits a light signal to ensure safe delivery. Only then does the drone land on the van's roof fully autonomously with the help of an infrared landing guidance beam.
The driver of the vehicle is then tasked with actually delivering the package to a customer. That concept is now a reality, with a three-week trial in the Swiss capital using drone-van combos to deliver goods for Siroop.
Matternet, which is based in Menlo Park, California, was granted authorization to operate its drones over densely populated areas in Switzerland in March, and says that approval was a world first. Last week, the company unveiled a Matternet Station: a kind of white, futuristic-looking postbox, with a footprint measuring about two square meters, that can be installed on rooftops or on the ground to send and receive packages by drone.
Daimler isn’t the only automaker interested using its vehicles as roving helipads. Earlier this year, Ford unveiled a new concept of an electric self-driving delivery van that can launch a fleet of drones to pick up and drop off packages in hard-to-reach places, like high-rise buildings.
It remains to be seen whether employing drones to deliver packages four pounds or lighter actually saves time or money. Drone delivery is still in its infancy, so it will take time to determine its cost-effectiveness.