Mercedes-Benz to make drone-equipped electric delivery vans for online orders

Drones will be able to reload their own batteries to continue their deliveries

Mercedes-Benz plans to make electric vans with automated flying drones as part of a $562 million, five-year investment aimed at speeding delivery times for online product orders.

Mercedes-Benz, a division of Daimler AG, said its "Vision Van" is a cloud-connected vehicle, enabling its cargo to be tracked by both the delivery driver and the customer. Once near a delivery location, the driver can deliver one package, while up to two drones can take off from the van roof to automatically deliver others.

Mercedes-Benz vision van Matternet

The Mercedes-Benz Vision Van with dual drone delivery system.

"We provide transport solutions for the digital age and evolve the van into an intelligent, interconnected data center on wheels," Volker Mornhinweg, head of Mercedes-Benz Vans, said in a statement. "So far, this approach is unique within the van sector."

As part of its new Vision Van line, which is being manufactured under the company's new "adVANce initiative" the German automaker purchased an as-yet undisclosed minority stake in Matternet, a Silicon-Valley commercial drone maker.

Matternet's M2 drones can be programmed to pick-up and carry a package of 4.4 pounds up to 12 miles on a battery charge. The drones can even change out their own batteries and continue delivering packages without human intervention.

matternet m2 in flight Matternet

The Matternet M2 drone in flight. The red box on its underbelly is a deliverable package.

The drones are loaded by a robotic system inside the van, which delivers the package to the belly of either drone through a rooftop opening with a sliding door.

The Vision Van itself is an all-electric vehicle with a 75kW battery that has a range of up to 167 miles, and a fully automated cargo space that can be loaded by robots carrying a modular cargo container.

The modular system will more efficiently pack delivered goods, eliminating time spent by drivers rearranging packages as they make their rounds. For example, Mercedes-Benz claimed, delivery drivers need to rearrange their packages (on average, around 180 items per load) 10 times while making deliveries within a residential area and must schedule approximately three to four minutes per stop.

The interconnected cargo space systems load the vehicle with all pre-picked parcels in one go, cutting loading times considerably and reducing the amount of vehicle downtime at distribution centers.

Mercedes-Benz drone van Matternet

A sky-view of a drone launching from the Vision Van's roof.

"It is the first van worldwide to fully digitally connect all people and processes involved, from the distribution center to the consignee," Mornhinweg said. "This makes the deliverer's job easier, reduces the delivery time and offers end customers new opportunities such as same-day delivery at an agreed time."

Mercedes-Benz Vans believes the Vision Van could increase delivery efficiency by up to 50% on the last mile.

Mercedes-Benz said more automation in package delivery is necessary to address "rapidly changing customer requirements," that include a burgeoning business in food and everyday necessities ordered online.

"Here, demand for same-day delivery or delivery within an hour is increasing rapidly. At the same time, more and more people are living in cities -- by 2030 urban areas will be home to more than two thirds of the world's population," Mornhinweg said. "It is clear that the rising transportation requirements will need to be met even faster and more efficiently in [the] future and, above all, in an environmentally friendly way."

Mercedes-Benz vision van drone Matternet

The robotic loading system inside the Vision Van's cargo space. The robot grabs the package and loads it into the underbelly of the drone through a door in the van's roof.

As part of its adVANce initiative, Mercedes-Benz Vans said it will be focusing on three fields of innovation: the first involves incorporating the van into the Internet of Things and integrating smart technologies; the second is an automated cargo space loading system for delivery vehicles for parcel services; and the third are new mobility concepts for the on-demand transportation of goods and people.

Mercedes-Benz Vans has created a new organizational unit called Future Transportation Systems, based in Stuttgart, Berlin and Silicon Valley with about 200 employees. Mercedes-Benz vans are currently sold to FedEx Corp., Deutsche Post DHL and Hermes Group in Germany.

The Mercedes-Benz Vans will be offered through leasing, rental and ride-sharing options.

"In [the] future these intelligent mobility concepts could supplement public transit by making fast, efficient and individual transport of passengers possible during peak and off-peak hours via ridesharing concepts," Mornhinweg said. "In the future, the intelligent networking of technologies can also make the transportation of goods more efficient and considerably improve transport on the last mile."

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