UPS Showcases New Delivery Drone, Screws It All Up

UPS Showcases New Delivery Drone, Screws It All Up

Everybody knows by now that the delivery drone ambitions of companies like FedEx and UPS amount to marketing stunts. But what happens when those stunts don’t go quite as planned? UPS knows because it recently crashed a delivery drone in front of a bunch of reporters.

Dreadfully named “The HorseFly”, the new UPS octocopter docks with a fancy hybrid version of the iconic brown delivery trucks. The whole process is kind of neat. When the drone is docked, it’s charging up to make a quick jaunt from the truck on the street to the customer’s front door. The UPS driver just jams a small package (up to 4.5kg) in a cage while the drone is attached to the truck. Then, the truck’s roof slides back like a scene out of Star Wars, and the HorseFly zips several dozen metres to deliver the package.

This all sounds well and good — until something goes wrong. TechCrunch’s Sarah Perez and Lora Kolodny were at the demo at a blueberry farm in Tampa, Florida and buried this salacious detail at the bottom of their report:

During a second, unofficial demonstration of the HorseFly for UPS on Monday, some sort of interference — possibly from the broadcast reporters’ cameras – caused an issue with the drone’s compass. The drone aborted its launch, tried to land on top of the UPS truck, fell to the side and was nearly crushed by the still-closing lid of the vehicle.

“We’ve never seen it before,” said Burns, of the glitch.

This is a big bummer for a couple reasons. Even though the crash didn’t knock anybody’s head off, the idea that new kinds of radio interference can screw up the delivery drones compass means that UPS is going to do a lot more work before letting these things fly in public.

But from a broader vantage point, it’s sobering for fans of drone delivery — if they exist — because wireless communication is only going to get more complex, particularly in the US as the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) opens up more spectrum and the air gets even more crowded with the radio waves of new gadgets. Like, if multi-million dollar electronic companies can’t even figure out how to make wireless headphones work perfectly, the notion of a building a safe, nationwide wireless drone delivery system seems damn near impossible.

Then again, we always knew it was going to be this way. Amazon basically faked its first demonstration of delivery drones by flying a super lightweight package just several dozen metres in a remote part of England. UPS, to its credit, managed to do a demo in more realistic conditions, but it just didn’t work out for them. Guess we’re stuck interacting with our delivery drivers for at least a few more years.


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