Mercedes Reveals Drone Bay of Tomorrow – A Vision of Extra-Special Delivery

By Steve & Tamami Laser

Let’s strap on our teleportation devices and zoom into the future, say 10, or maybe 15 years from now. By then autonomous vehicles are likely to be a common sight. Yet no matter how advanced our technology may become, until the day when 3D printers can whip up everything we want – from jewelry to pizza – stuff will still need to be delivered to our homes.

Mercedes-Benz Van Innovation CampusWill the delivery van of tomorrow look like the Sprinter of today? Not if this truck maker has its way. It might look something like the new Mercedes-Benz Vision concept unveiled in Stuttgart this week (shown above with Volker Mornhinweg, Head of Mercedes-Benz Vans).

The familiar sound of a diesel van pulling up to our house (as our dogs bark) and a delivery agent leaving packages by our front door would be replaced by a super-efficient, electric and interconnected system including drone delivery. Let’s take a closer look at what Mercedes is thinking.

The Vision Van evolved as part of the strategic future initiative “adVANce.” Mercedes-Benz Vans says it’s evolving from a mere van manufacturer into a supplier of “holistic system solutions.” The Vision Van is billed as the first van worldwide to serve as an integrated concept for a completely digitally connected process chain, from the goods distribution depot to the consignee.

The Vision Van features a fully automated cargo space, integrated drones for autonomous air deliveries and state-of-the-art joystick control. Powered by a 75 kW electric drive system with a range of “up to 270 km,” deliveries with the Vision Van are  said to be “locally emission-free.”

Watch the Van of the Future revealed in this presentation. (video: Mercedes-Benz Vans)

“With the Vision Van we are presenting the intelligent, clean and fully interconnected van of the future,” says Mornhinweg. “The Vision Van integrates many concrete concepts for future delivery operations in the urban environment, such as a fully automatic cargo space, autonomously flying delivery drones and innovative communication features.”

The Vision Van serves as the central, intelligent element in a fully connected delivery chain. Mercedes says that innovative algorithms control order picking, the loading of packages, the fully automated cargo space management, route planning for the vehicle and the delivery drones. They also calculate ideal delivery routes for the package deliverer.

mbvz10How does it work? Mercedes says that automatic order picking would take place at a logistics center, for example, and consignments loaded into special racking systems. Driverless handling vehicles load the racks by way of an automated one-shot loading process. The intelligent cargo space management system automatically transfers packages for manual delivery to the deliverer at the destination by means of a package dispenser onboard the vehicle. At the same time, the system supplies two drones, each with a payload capacity of two kilogrammes, with consignments for autonomous delivery within a radius of 10 km.

Mercedes-Benz Van Innovation Campus“The combination of a cloud-based control software and optimum hardware yields substantial time and efficiency benefits and raises the quality and flexibility of delivery services in the urban environment to a new level,” says the van maker. The delivery time per package and the vehicle’s curbside time are designed to be markedly reduced. The vehicle also opens up new options for same-day and time-definite delivery. Convenience for the end customer is thus enhanced, and “failed delivery attempts become an exception.”

“With the Vision Van we are integrating the intelligence of a state-of-the-art logistics depot into a van”, Mornhinweg says. “We estimate that this vehicle would enable an increase in productivity of up to 50 percent in last-mile delivery services.”

Mercedes-Benz Vision VanThe futuristic design by Mercedes-Benz Vans is defined by an extremely wide windshield, which curves around to the sidewalls like a high-tech visor. A Black Panel radiator grille with integrated LED matrix lets the van communicate with its surroundings via LED displays on the front and rear.

Mercedes-Benz Vision VanDesigners have eliminated the steering wheel, pedals and center console in favor of joystick drive-by-wire control. This results in a unique interior “centering on intelligent communication between driver and vehicle.” They also moved the driver’s seat further forward to enlarge the vehicle’s useful floor space.

Mercedes-Benz Vision VanMercedes says the dashboard in the shape of a broadly sweeping arc is covered with premium textile and extends across the entire front end. When the Vision Van is in “stand-by” mode, the arc appears as a continuous blue surface with a black color gradient. When the vehicle is in operation, the arc lights up and shows a tachometer, route planning information and drone flight data.

The vehicle also communicates with the driver via LED indicators in the stainless-steel floor, signalling whether pedestrians or cyclists are approaching, for example. At the rear wall of the driver’s cabin are the package dispenser and the driver’s info terminal providing information on the delivery process.

The Vision Van’s electric drive system eliminates the need for a typical driveline, making it possible to provide the cab with a level floor. The onboard package dispenser spares the driver the time-consuming and strength-sapping task of searching for and resorting consignments in the cargo space.

Mercedes-Benz Vision VanOne-shot loading requires a fully automated distribution center. Mercedes says that robots would package products after they’ve been delivered by dealers and forwarding agents, and assign the packages on conveyor belts.

Thomas Moser, Vision Van Project Director at Mercedes-Benz Vans, is convinced that such scenarios will all be part of everyday routines in the logistics sector of the future. “Many courier, express and parcel service providers and online retailers are pursuing investment and research efforts with the aim to make logistics processes faster, simpler and more efficient,” he says.

Mercedes-Benz Vision VanTwo delivery drones form an integral part of the Vision Van system. Together with technology partner Matternet, a Silicon Valley-based developer of drone logistics systems, Mercedes has developed a concept for the combined operation of drone and vehicle.

The drone’s housing consists of carbon fiber and aluminium. Four propellers each measure 21.5 inches (approx. 55 cm) in diameter. Mercedes says that similar multi-rotor systems from Matternet have already proven their credentials in inaccessible regions, supplying people with medicines and other light items. The drones have a payload capacity of two kilograms and their batteries are claimed to last for round-trip flights of up to 20 km.

mbvz9Complex interactions between drone, vehicle and IT-supported back-end processes take place during take-off and landing of the drones. A holding device enters into the landing frame and fixes the drone securely in place on the roof of the van. The cloud-based air route planning tool identifies and continuously monitors the vehicle’s position via GPS. The loaded drone takes off autonomously as soon as the vehicle has reached the pre-defined launch point and has come to a stop.

Mercedes-Benz Vision VanThe automatic cargo space management system prepares for the launch of the drones while the vehicle is en route to the launching point. The rack feeder moves the load carrier with the drone box for the impending flight into position under the anchored drone.

A lifting arm transports the load carrier into position directly under the vehicle’s roof while a hatch above the drone opens automatically. A lifting arm slides the package and battery into the opening provided in the drone. The drone moves package box and battery into final position by means of a gripping mechanism and locks them in place. At the launching point the holding device which connects the quadcopter to the vehicle is released. The drone is ready to take off.

Mercedes-Benz Vision VanMercedes says that Matternet’s system calculates a flight route free of obstacles by reference to detailed maps. The drone lands on stations designed specifically for this purpose – either on the Vision Van or on special landing stations belonging to customers. The drone is guided via GPS into position 17 m directly over the landing station. During the landing process the landing station emits an infrared guide beam which maintains the drone in position during its descent until its landing is completed. The drone deposits the package box in the landing station while the battery remains in the drone. The drone then returns to the vehicle, where it lands and deposits the discharge battery in the load carrier. The next drone box contains a fresh battery for the next delivery flight.

This all sounds fantastic. So perhaps in the not-too-distant future we’ll be sitting by the dock of the drones, waiting for our package to fly home.

Mercedes-Benz Vans is a global full-line supplier of vans and related services. Alongside the full-size Sprinter van and the midsize Vito van (known in the U.S. as Metris), the division’s worldwide product portfolio includes the Citan urban delivery van. Mercedes-Benz Vans is also represented in the private segment with the V-Class MPV and the Marco Polo and Marco Polo ACTIVITY travel vans.

Prototype vehicle features and specifications are preliminary and subject to change without notice

News source, photos and video courtesy Mercedes-Benz Vans and Daimler AG

Story (commentary) © 2016