Mercedes-Benz is betting that drones are the future of package delivery. The company announced on Wednesday a “multi-million dollar” investment in drone startup Matternet, which has developed a completely autonomous drone – the Matternet M2 – that can travel up to 12 miles on a charge.
As part of the partnership, Mercedes unveiled a concept van project, dubbed the Vision Van, that shows how a Matternet-powered automated delivery chain could work.
The van, which has the form factor of a Sprinter, features a mechanical shelving system that loads packages. The vehicle knows where each package is on the shelf and where it’s going. Once the driver is on the road, they get a notification when they need to stop for a package delivery.
The van’s shelving system pushes the package into a drone (locked in a landing station) on the roof of the van, and the drone then delivers it a docking station at the final location.
“The other scenario is that you as the customer go on [something like the] Amazon website, see the option to have something delivered in an hour, and the system knows a Mercedez Benz van is nearby. The drone could depart from the Amazon delivery center, go to a van, and the driver hands the package off to you. This doesn’t require any infrastructure,” says Andreas Raptopoulous, the founder and CEO of Matternet.
One way to do this – which Mercedes is calling Vans and Drones – involves a beacon installed on the van roof that allows Matternet’s drone to make an ultra-precise landing.
While Matternet isn’t currently working with Amazon, the scenario could apply to any large company that makes deliveries, he says.
Matternet’s M2 drone, also unveiled on Wednesday, can load and drop off payloads of up to 4.4 pounds with no human interaction.
The automotive company hasn’t yet announced a timeline for drone delivery technology to be commercialized, but it could be several months or even years before testing is complete, according to Raptopoulous.
Still, Mercedes is being “quite aggressive about pushing this into the marketplace,” he says. “There are different systems we’ll try to figure out what should be productized, but they are moving at a pace where they know the market is there,” he says.