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ATLANTA: February 21, 2017. UPS has successfully tested a drone that launches from an electric van, delivers a package, and then returns to the vehicle while the driver continues with deliveries.

Last year Mercedes-Benz announced a "multi-million dollar investment" in Matternet, the developer of autonomous drone systems, to create a similar integrated van/drone delivery system for small packages.

Combined with navigation routing software, UPS said it could save up to US$50 million a year on rural deliveries by integrating the use of drones in a driver's daily schedule.

UPS drone testing in rural Florida"Drivers are the face of our company, and that won't change," said UPS senior vice president of global engineering and sustainability Mark Wallace. "What's exciting is the potential for drones to aid drivers at various points along their routes, helping them save time and deliver on increasing customer service needs that stem from the growth of e-commerce."

With 66,000 delivery drivers on the road each day, UPS said rural delivery routes are the most expensive to serve due to the time and vehicle expenses required to complete each delivery.

"This test is different than anything we've done with drones so far. It has implications for future deliveries, especially in rural locations where our package cars often have to travel miles to make a single delivery," explained Wallace. "Imagine a triangular delivery route where the stops are miles apart by road. Sending a drone from a package car to make just one of those deliveries can reduce costly miles driven. This is a big step toward bolstering efficiency in our network and reducing our emissions at the same time."

UPS conducted the test in Florida with Workhorse Group, an Ohio-based battery-electric truck and drone developer. Workhorse built both the drone, capable of flying 30 minutes with a 10lb package, and the van.

Unlike previous occasions, UPS said its latest test shows how drones can be used as part of regular day-to-day deliveries.

Last year the company partnered with robotics manufacturer Zipline and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, to set up a drone delivery system in Rwanda. The government is now using 15 'Zips' drones to make up to 150 emergency deliveries per day of life-saving blood to 21 transfusion facilities in the western half of the country.

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