Mercedes Tries to Conquer the Last Mile With Cute Delivery Drones and Bots

Fly my pretties! Vans will release and retrieve drones and wheeled cargo bots

2 min read
Mercedes and Starship Technologies collaborate on cargo delivery bots
Photo: Alex Kraus/Bloomberg/Getty Images

Mercedes-Benz is experimenting with small bots to carry cargo over that last, pesky mile to the customer, using a human-driven van to ferry the them over the previous stretch.

The two kinds of bots, aerial and terrestrial, are being supplied by companies we’ve already written about. Matternet is providing its slick M2 quadcopter, several of which would perch on the van’s roof. Starship Technologies is providing its six-wheel robot, eight of which can fit inside a van.

The idea is that the driver of the Mercedes Sprinter van would load up the bots with their various payloads, take an optimized route from one customer to the next, and unleash the automatons. Then, after the bots have made their rounds, the van would pick them up again at some convenient point, carry them back to the warehouse, load them with more cargo and, perhaps, swap out the battery.

Starship Technologies says the bots are autonomous, but adds that each one is monitored remotely and can be taken over by a human driver in a pinch. It seems that in this trial, at least, the human driver will be watching things all the time.

Matternet’s M2 drone can carry up to 2 kilograms (4.4 pounds), which is more than one large pizza (but not quite enough for two). “It can drop and reload a payload and battery without human interaction,” the company says, “and features a smart payload box that can transmit data about its contents and destination. It also has precision landing capabilities and captures proof of delivery.”

However, the M2 follows a predetermined route and apparently does not have the ability to sense and avoid unexpected obstacles, like a passing bird or a recently fallen branch. 

The economics of cargo-bot delivery are unclear, even with the added finesse of marrying vans to bots. Wheeled bots can work only in very well-maintained areas—think suburbs with sidewalks. Drone delivery is cost-effective only when you absolutely, positively have to get a small package past an unreliable road system—think delivering medicines and blood samples in rural parts of Africa.

Still, if you improve the batteries, extend the range, add sense-and-avoid tech, and replace the van driver with a fully autonomous driving system, you will have a winner. Think quite a few years from now.

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We Need More Than Just Electric Vehicles

To decarbonize road transport we need to complement EVs with bikes, rail, city planning, and alternative energy

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A worker works on the frame of a car on an assembly line.

China has more EVs than any other country—but it also gets most of its electricity from coal.

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EVs have finally come of age. The total cost of purchasing and driving one—the cost of ownership—has fallen nearly to parity with a typical gasoline-fueled car. Scientists and engineers have extended the range of EVs by cramming ever more energy into their batteries, and vehicle-charging networks have expanded in many countries. In the United States, for example, there are more than 49,000 public charging stations, and it is now possible to drive an EV from New York to California using public charging networks.

With all this, consumers and policymakers alike are hopeful that society will soon greatly reduce its carbon emissions by replacing today’s cars with electric vehicles. Indeed, adopting electric vehicles will go a long way in helping to improve environmental outcomes. But EVs come with important weaknesses, and so people shouldn’t count on them alone to do the job, even for the transportation sector.

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