• Mercedes-Benz Van in blue and black.

    Vans & Drones in Zurich.

Pilot project for on-demand delivery.

Mercedes-Benz Vans, US drone systems developer Matternet and Swiss online marketplace siroop have started a pilot project in Zurich to test an efficient van and drone-based system for on-demand delivery of e-commerce goods. The pilot project, which started with first trials on 25 September, represents a significant milestone for autonomous aerial systems: it is the first time that extensive beyond line-of-sight drone operations with the use of vans as landing platforms are taking place in a major urban area to test a fully-automated e-commerce drone network. The development of the overall system uses an iterative approach and is based on early testing and continuous optimization.

A drone flying in the air just above a platform.
Mercedes-Benz Vans & Drones: a drone flying above a blue and black Mercedes Transporter.

Drone delivery.

During the course of the three-week pilot project, customers will be able to order selected products from online marketplace siroop that are suitable for transport by a Matternet drone, such as consumer electronics and other e-commerce items weighing up to two kilogrammes. Delivery will be made on the same day. The drones are loaded directly at the merchant and fly to one of two Vito vans equipped with a precision landing technology. The van stops at one of four pre-defined points, called “rendezvous points”, within the city of Zurich, where the van driver takes possession of the product and delivers it to the customer, while the drone returns to the retailer. The entire logistics chain from order receipt to delivery to the customer will be timed and compared against conventional delivery methods to gain insights into the efficiency of the solution.

Vito with integrated landing platform.

With integrated precision landing technology on their roofs, prototype Vito vans turn into connected, safe landing platforms for Matternet drone deliveries. The goal of the project is to significantly improve the time and service level associated with on-demand delivery, and consequently create added value for retailers and consumers. The operation has been authorized by the Swiss Federal Office of Civil Aviation (FOCA) following the Specific Operations Risk Assessment (SORA) methodology developed by JARUS (Joint Authorities for Rulemaking on Unmanned Systems) and was approved by all relevant Swiss air and ground authorities.

Safety is the guiding principle during the pilot, which will run for seven hours per day, five days a week in favourable weather conditions only. Matternet drones are integrated in the Swiss airspace system using the same sense and avoid system used by helicopter operators and other users of the lower part of the airspace, and are equipped with a parachute system that is automatically deployed in case of a malfunction.

siroop: First pilot customer.

The Vans & Drones project was presented by Mercedes-Benz Vans and Matternet at the “Van Innovation Campus” event in September 2016. The pilot project in Zurich, with siroop as the first system user, is the next step in the advancement of the concept. The shipment is not delivered to the consumer by drone, but rather to the delivery van, which handles delivery for the final segment of the last mile. The use of Vito vans as intelligent, mobile landing stations for Matternet drones is suitable for a variety of use cases and offers several advantages.

A drone with a siroop delivery box flying through the air.
A drone flying above a Mercedes-Benz Van while people are watching.

The advantages.

  • Reduced overall delivery cycle and cost compared to existing courier service operations. Packages are delivered faster, irrespective of traffic in urban areas.
  • Integration of drone systems into the logistics chain, with no change in customer behaviour. Customers will still receive their packages from a van driver in the exact same way they receive it today.
  • Gives retailers and logistics companies the ability to provide customers a true on-demand delivery solution, without the need for additional infrastructure. And it allows companies with van fleets to further leverage them and add on-demand services.
  • Allows drones to land on the roof of a Vito van, approximately two meters above ground, ensuring the safety of passers-by.
  • The Matternet M2 drones used in the pilot can carry packages of up to two kilogrammes over distances of up to 20 kilometres. In recent months, the integrated system has been continuously refined and tested extensively in preparation for operation in an urban environment.

Next development steps.

The pilot project is the first step in an iterative process culminating in a system solution with a clear target vision: van fleets dynamically synchronised with drone fleets for efficient on-demand delivery with low energy footprint and impact of congestion. Drone deliveries will be dynamically integrated into conventional delivery routes. In this scenario, vans will not be required to drive to a small number of fixed “rendezvous points” to receive a drone. They will be supplied by a drone along their regular routes at suitable stopping points. This allows urgent shipments to be integrated into existing delivery runs and thereby to be delivered faster to the customer.

Two men optimize the drone project in front of three computer screens.