UPS tests drones for urgent deliveries

UPS’s CyPhy test drone made a mock delivery of medicine to an island off the coast of Massachusetts.

UPS’s CyPhy test drone made a mock delivery of medicine to an island off the coast of Massachusetts.

The day when a UPS package could be delivered by drone is one step closer.

UPS this week began testing drone delivery of urgent packages to remote locations — a niche where drones could play a unique role.

The Sandy Springs-based shipping giant said it is working with drone maker CyPhy Works on the testing, which started Thursday with a mock delivery of medicine from Beverly, Mass., to an island three miles off the Atlantic coast. The flight took six minutes.

UPS’s strategic enterprise fund has invested in CyPhy.

The idea of drone deliveries has been much discussed, with Amazon and Walmart also researching possibilities.

The UPS test involved delivery of an asthma inhaler via a battery-powered drone with night vision. UPS expects the drone could deliver items that weigh up to four to five pounds.

Mark Wallace, UPS’s senior vice president of global engineering and sustainability, said in a statement that “tests like these reveal a bridge to the future of customer service and urgent package delivery.”

The move comes after new federal rules took effect opening the door to limited use of drones by businesses.

Hurdles remain, including limits on flying over people and beyond line-of-sight.

“FAA regulations and technology will have to evolve and change before any widespread drone fleet can be launched for delivery,” said John Dodero, vice president of industrial engineering at UPS.

Dodero said “if this was to work, it would just potentially supplement our drivers’ capacity.” UPS already uses a variety of delivery vehicles, ranging from scooters and bicycles in some parts of the world to gondolas in Venice.

Dodero also said UPS is “extremely fascinated with autonomous vehicles,” adding that collision avoidance technology being added to some UPS trucks “is the first step to autonomy.”

The company has also been testing drones in warehouses in Louisville and the Netherlands to check high racks, and for humanitarian efforts to deliver vaccines and blood in Rwanda in partnership with vaccine alliance Gavi.