Mercedes-Benz and U.S. tech startup Matternet are teaming up to change the shape of small package delivery. The two companies have joined together on what they're calling the adVANce initiative to pair electric vans with drones to deliver small packages to hard-to-reach destinations. Matternet got things underway by raising $9.5 million in venture capital, and Mercedes-Benz plans to invest an estimated $562 million in the project over the next five years.
The so-called Vision Van is designed to carry drones on its roof, to be launched when the van itself or its driver can't reach the package's actual destination. The electric vans will have a range of about 168 miles on a single charge, and its cargo space can be used to carry larger or heavier packages that the driver can deliver by hand while the drone handles light deliveries at the same time.
Don't take that concept of the "last mile" too literally, though. The Matternet M2 drones, which should be able to carry packages of almost 5 pounds, have a range of about 12 miles as the crow flies. They can and change their batteries without human involvement, and they work in tandem with robotic shelving and Mercedes cloud-based computing systems to select and load packages inside a protective, hard-shelled case.
Mercedes-Benz and Matternet envision using the Vision Vans to make deliveries to remote locations that are inaccessible to normal transportation. For instance, the drones could deliver emergency medications or other small supplies to a disaster zone where the roads are out, or they could pick up blood samples from villages in rural Africa for speedy HIV testing. They can also be used to bypass traffic jams in heavily congested urban environments or to complete the final leg of delivery in remote areas that don't have reliable roads. Companies such as Amazon could also make use of this coordinated system to deliver packages from a nearby distribution center to a waiting driver.
The two companies compare their innovative pairing of high-tech electric vans and integrated, autonomous drones with the ultimate in low-tech delivery systems: the passenger pigeon or carrier pigeon. Carrier pigeons, which were the cutting-edge technology of the 19th century, were carried by hand to a specific location, then set free to deliver a message speedily and reliably, as the drones are intended to do.
Through their partnership, Mercedes-Benz and Matternet expect to streamline last-mile delivery, reducing overall delivery costs. Their paired expertise should make a difference to those waiting for emergency deliveries in remote locations as well as people in crowded cities wondering when their packages are going to arrive.