UPS hints at drone ambitions

Shipping giant UPS said it is testing drone delivery services in an effort that could have significant implications for the nation's wireless network operators.

In a virtual presentation Tuesday at the Wireless Infrastructure Association's Connect (X) trade show, UPS's Bala Ganesh said that the company has conducted several drone tests since obtaining US government approval in late 2019 to operate a drone airline.

"We've been working on this for five years," Ganesh, the VP of UPS's Advanced Technology Group, said in his presentation. "Today we are delivering."

Ganesh highlighted three key drone tests conducted by UPS in recent months:

  • With drone company Matternet, he said UPS transported medical samples to testing labs at the WakeMed flagship hospital in North Carolina, which he said cut down transit time to less than five minutes to speed up diagnosis.
  • He said UPS has tested launching drones from the top of its package delivery vehicles in rural residential areas. In a video, drones rise from the top of a UPS van to deliver packages to nearby residents.
  • And Ganesh said the company participated in a White House event designed to test the viability of drones to handle deliveries amid COVID-19 lockdown orders. Specifically, he said the company started delivering medicine to a senior living facility in Florida several weeks ago.

Ganesh's appearance at the WIA's trade show is important because the event is specifically targeted at wireless providers, cell tower operators and others in the mobile industry, potentially indicating UPS's plans to connect a fleet of delivery drones to 4G or 5G networks.

Indeed, UPS is already a heavy user of wireless technology. For example, it began using AT&T's 2.5G GPRS network almost 20 years ago to connect thousands of its drivers to the Internet. And, as Light Reading reported earlier this year, UPS is testing a significant private wireless network at its distribution center in Billings, Montana.

But Ganesh declined to provide any additional insight into UPS's plans for its drones. He declined to answer questions about the wireless networks the company is using in its tests, or what kinds of network performance characteristics UPS is looking for.

"We are continuing to evaluate different ways of connecting as the market matures," he wrote in response to questions from the WIA audience. "Wireless requirements is a critical piece of safely operating drones and we are testing and evaluating various operating models from different vendors."

He offered a similarly vague response to a question about the potential of a wireless network built by UPS. "We continue to evaluate private LTE and see opportunities for UPS," he said.

To be clear, UPS isn't the only company eyeing the possibility of a fleet of drones powered by a wireless network. AT&T has touted the drones it can use to create a bubble of wireless coverage in emergencies, while cell tower operator American Tower uses drones to monitor its tower operations. And Verizon acquired drone company Skyward in 2017 to sell drone services across the country.

Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading | @mikeddano

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