Everybody knows by now that the delivery drone ambitions of companies like FedEx and UPS amount to marketing stunts. But what happens when those stunts don’t go quite as planned? UPS knows because it recently bungled a delivery drone demo in front of a bunch of reporters.
Dreadfully named “The HorseFly,” the new UPS octocopter docks with a fancy hybrid version of the iconic brown delivery trucks. The whole process is kind of neat. When the drone is docked, it’s charging up to make a quick jaunt from the truck on the street to the customer’s front door. The UPS driver just jams a small package (up to 10 pounds) in a cage while the drone is attached to the truck. Then, the truck’s roof slides back like a scene out of Star Wars, and the HorseFly zips a few hundred feet to deliver the package.
UPS managed to demonstrate how the roof of the truck slides back, the HorseFly drone flies autonomously to its destination, delivers a package, and successfully returns to the truck. Everything went just as planned. But when reporters asked for a second demo, something went wrong. TechCrunch’s Sarah Perez and Lora Kolodny were at the demo at a blueberry farm in Tampa, Florida and buried this salacious detail at the bottom of their report:
During a second, unofficial demonstration of the HorseFly for UPS on Monday, some sort of interference – possibly from the broadcast reporters’ cameras - caused an issue with the drone’s compass. The drone aborted its launch, tried to land on top of the UPS truck, fell to the side and was nearly crushed by the still-closing lid of the vehicle.
“We’ve never seen it before,” said Burns, of the glitch.
A UPS representative later told to Gizmodo that the drone didn’t actually crash nor was it crushed by the lid of the vehicle. When the aircraft tipped sideways, a human operator took over and steadied the drone before taking off and landing it on the ground unharmed, the company says
Still, the glitch is a big bummer for a couple reasons. Even though the crash didn’t knock anybody’s head off, the idea that new kinds of radio interference can screw up the delivery drones compass means that UPS is going to do a lot more work before letting these things fly in public.
But from a broader vantage point, it’s sobering for fans of drone delivery—if they exist—because wireless communication is only going to get more complex as the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) opens up more spectrum and the air gets even more crowded with the radio waves of new gadgets. Like, if multimillion dollar electronic companies can’t even figure out how to make wireless headphones work perfect, the notion of a building a safe, nationwide wireless drone delivery system seems damn near impossible.
Then again, we always knew it was going to be this way. Amazon basically faked its first demonstration of delivery drones by flying a super lightweight package just a few hundred feet in a remote part of England. UPS, to its credit, managed to do a demo in more realistic conditions, but it just didn’t work out for them. Guess we’re stuck interacting with an awful cheerful UPS employee in a silly brown outfit for at least a few more years.
Update 4:20 - This post has been updated to include additional details, according to a UPS spokesperson regarding the results of the official demonstration as well as the incident that followed in the second demo. We’ve also adjusted the post’s language to clarify that the drone landed safely after the glitch occurred.