Still some bumps in the road for UPS drone delivery program

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What can drones do for you? Delivery company UPS is seeing how drones could help them make their drivers more efficient. They conducted a first-of-its-kind test just outside of Tampa, but their big reveal didn't go exactly as planned.

The plan is to see whether drones can successfully launch from UPS's ubiquitous brown delivery trucks and then re-dock.

"The driver loads a package right here," demonstrated John Dodero, the company's vice president of engineering. "As you can see, there is a cage that is suspended from the drone. The drone is above and it is through a hatch in the top of the truck and the driver simply loads a package into this cage."

Dodero explained that software determines the best candidates for drone delivery, and then handles the delivery itself. After loading the package, the driver simply activates a touch-screen to send the drone on its way.

"Once she touches, it dispatches the drone and the rest is autonomous: The hatch goes back on the truck, the drone launches, and it delivers to the location, which has been predetermined."

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The "Horsefly" octocopter, custom made by Workhorse for UPS, can fly for half an hour and carry 10 pounds. It recharges when it docks. The idea is that, while a driver has stopped to deliver one package, a drone could be delivering another.

"If you could give the ones to the left to the bird, and it could go do that while you're doing three to the right, that's the goal," explained Steve Burns, CEO of Workhorse Drones.

The company says a reduction of just one mile per driver per day could save UPS up to $50 million a year. But will it save customers money?

"None of that's been determined at this point of time," Dodero admitted.

At this point in time, it's all hypothetical anyway. Government regulators require drones to remain in line of sight as they work with industry reps to come up with safety standards for the drones and security standards for the software.

"As those types of standards are established -- and met -- then greater access will be allowed," offered Capt. Houston Mills of the FAA Drone Advisory Committee. "There's a lot of things that have to be put in place to ensure we don't lose the public's trust."

It's all just a trial phase right now, as the demonstration in rural Lithia showed. While the planned demo worked great, a second unofficial launch did not go so smoothly: The drone got stuck on the launch rail and the panel started to close on it.

Engineers aren't sure what went wrong at this point but guessed that perhaps there was some sort of radio interference from the broadcast cameras.

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