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UPS, Verizon, Skyward partner on 5G drone delivery in Florida

Dive Brief:

  • UPS will team up with Verizon and its subsidiary, Skyward, to deliver retail products with drones through its Flight Forward division at The Villages in Florida, Verizon announced in a press release and its CES 2021 keynote this week.
  • The partnership will examine the use of 5G networks for drones, which the companies say will be important for growing delivery operations.
  • “We will need the ability to manage and support multiple drones, flying simultaneously, dispatched from a centralized location, operating in a secure and safe environment. To do this at scale, alongside Verizon and Skyward, we’ll need the power of 5G,” UPS CEO Carol Tomé said in a statement.

Dive Insight:

At this point, drone delivery is nothing new for UPS, which has been making commercial deliveries with drones since 2019 and received certification from the Federal Aviation Administration that year. UPS announced plans to work with CVS on prescription deliveries in The Villages, Florida, last April.

The key difference in UPS’ latest partnership is the use of 5G. Verizon and Skyward said the technology — and the increased speed and bandwidth that it will add to cellular networks — could improve delivery operations and help them grow by providing a network that can monitor and communicate with an entire fleet of drones at the same time. As more devices are added to a network, the more important the bandwidth provided by 5G becomes.

“We can support more devices in a square mile with 5G than we can with 4G,” a Skyward spokesperson said in an email to sister publication Supply Chain Dive. “With the number and diversity of cellular-connected devices increasing across cell phones, cars, IoT, smart meters, drones and more being able to support all of those devices on the network is critical.”

In a promotional video about the partnership, Skyward President Mariah Scott said 5G will help with the management of drone fleets for delivery.

“5G makes that possible because of the ultra-low latency, the massive capacity and bandwidth, the security and reliability, those are all critical components to achieving that future vision,” Scott said.

The use of 5G for drone communication and connectivity has been studied for a few years, with multiple companies and researchers noting it will have an important impact.

“Drones are supporting 5G by providing increased coverage and connectivity; and 5G is supporting drones by providing improved signals and location data,” NC State Vice Chancellor for Information Technology Marc Hoit said in a 2019 statement.

The exact details of the partnership are limited with the timeframe for starting and retail partners still not disclosed. In the past, UPS has partnered with multiple organizations on drone deliveries that have largely been focused on healthcare. Previous partners include CVS and WakeMed in Raleigh, North Carolina.

UPS has also put a lot of thought into how to deploy its delivery drones, with patents filed for a truck with a sliding roof that allows a drone to take off with a package. The truck shown in the promotional video this week seems to show a version of that patent has become a reality.

In the video announcement, Bala Ganesh, the vice president of the Advanced Technology Group at UPS, said 5G would be an important part of drone delivery in the future.

“5G is the glue that puts it all together,” Ganesh said. “That is what enables us to control and communicate with these drones that are flying around.”

FedEx, UPS’ largest peer in the logistics market, has also begun drone delivery pilots. It said last November it was exploring the use of 5G but didn’t say it was connected to drone delivery efforts.


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