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Logistical twist: New supply chain angle for drones and delivery vans

Drones still draw fascination from the public, and their potential use so far in the supply chain has centered on them flying from delivery vans to drop off packages. But what if that role was flipped around?

An aptly named Mercedes-Benz Vans project called "Vans and Drones" is doing exactly that. In a pilot test going on now in Zurich, Switzerland, the company has partnered with American drone maker Matternet Inc. and Swiss online marketplace Siroop that's using drones essentially to supply delivery vans.

Menlo Park, CA-based Matternet is already pushing ahead in the drone delivery business, developing "Stations" that use the company's drones to fly packages from one drop-off location to another to provide on-demand delivery.

But Siroop is pointing out a different use for drones. Since Siroop offers products online that may not be centrally warehoused, it presents a logistical difficulty in sourcing those products for fast delivery. The idea with the Drones and Vans project is to use drones to ferry such items quickly and autonomously from the product maker or merchant to a delivery van at predefined rendezvous locations along existing routes.

An important part of the project is the cloud systems and software in the background. Wireless tracking and GPS systems at Siroop, Matternet and Mercedes-Benz Vans are linked together to monitor and coordinate transportation of a product that's ordered from drone to van.

The Matternet M2 drone being used with the project can transport 3 kg (6.6 lbs.) of payload up to 20 km (12.4 miles) and flies at 70 km/h, or about 43.5 mph. It tracks along to its destination at a height of about 80 m, which is just above 262 ft.; the routes it flies are preauthorized, just like air traffic control.

The delivery van — which in this case is a specially outfitted Mercedes-Benz Vito, the equivalent of the Metris sold in the U.S. — then handles last-mile transportation to the customer. This role could easily be filled by a plethora of delivery vehicles.

Click through our slideshow to learn more about the Drones and Vans project and check out the video below. 



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