[MUNICH] Mercedes-Benz is looking at mounting automated flying drones onto a new line of electric vans as part of a 500 million-euro (S$756.9 million) investment aimed at speeding delivery times for online orders.
The small pilotless aircraft would be part of a suite of on-board systems, including digital sorting equipment, that could cut both costs and delivery times in half for the final portion of a package's journey, the carmaker said Wednesday at a presentation in Stuttgart, Germany.
The two drones can each fly items weighing as much as 2 kilograms (4.4 pounds) as far as 10 kilometres (6 miles), enabling service to difficult-to-reach to places.
The concept is among the Daimler AG unit's efforts to help corporate customers speed product transport as volumes rise because of the boom in electronic commerce.
Deutsche Post AG's DHL division and United Parcel Service Inc are also looking at how to ensure items are delivered on the first attempt even when the consumer isn't home. Online retailers such as Amazon.com Inc are experimenting with handling deliveries themselves.
"The business in our sector is changing dramatically, so we're looking far beyond our core product and getting into new markets," Volker Mornhinweg, who heads Mercedes's vans business, said in a statement.
"We want to make vans an intelligent, connected data centre on wheels." The investments will be spaced over five years. Mercedes didn't outline a time frame for when the drones or technologies like a robotic arm for sorting parcels inside the van might become commercially available.
Many industries are researching potential uses of drones beyond dropping the latest Internet shopping on people's doorsteps, such as railroad-track inspections, spotting criminals on the run or organ delivery for hospitals, though a regulatory structure for the aircraft is still in its infancy.
"The growth in transportation means we have to change our processes accordingly," said Stefan Maurer, head of Mercedes's future transport systems for vans.
The drones on the Mercedes concept are fixed to the van's roof above a hatch that opens to the vehicle's inside. Made of carbon fibre and aluminium, the mini-copters with four propellers measure about 55 centimetres (22 inches) across.
The aircraft were developed jointly with Menlo Park, California-based partner Matternet, and similar models have already helped carry medicine to people in difficult terrain, Mercedes said.
When a van reaches the area where the drone is supposed to take off, a robotic arm in the cargo area moves parcels inside a special box to the hatch, which opens automatically for the drone to pick up the item.
Using GPS, the aircraft flies to a landing spot set by the customer, Mercedes said.