Automakers often tout “mobility services” as a potential source of future growth. It’s easy to see car- and ride-sharing services fitting in with the portfolio of mobility services but there are many more possibilities.

Mercedes-Benz, or more specifically Mercedes-Benz Vans, is testing the waters with an on-demand delivery service where drones could be used to connect customers and merchants quickly and efficiently. The technology also has the potential to improve traffic by reducing the number of delivery vans on the road.

Mercedes is testing the technology’s functionality and market acceptance in a trial running in Zurich, Switzerland. The entire process from the time the order is made to the time the customer receives the package will be measured and compared against conventional delivery methods to gain insights into the efficiency of the solution. The trial includes American drone company Matternet and Swiss online retailer Siroop and works as follows:

Customers are able to order selected products (weighing less than 4.4 pounds) online at Siroop and have the item delivered on the same day, sometimes within minutes. The drones are loaded directly at the merchant and fly to one of two Mercedes Metris vans waiting at one of four pre-defined points, called “rendezvous points”, within the city of Zurich. Here the van driver can safely take possession of the product and then deliver it to the customer, while the drone returns to the retailer.

The trial, which started on September 25, represents a significant milestone for autonomous aerial systems: it is the first time that extensive beyond-line-of sight drone operations with the use of vans as landing platforms are taking place in a major urban area to test an almost fully-automated on-demand delivery service. At the same time, Mercedes is also investigating the potential of using autonomous drones on the ground.

In the next stage of the trial, vans and drones will be coordinated by dynamic routing technology and highly-automated order management. Drone deliveries will be dynamically integrated into conventional delivery routes. In this scenario, vans will not be required to drive to a small number of fixed “rendezvous points” to receive a drone. Instead, they will be supplied by a drone along their regular routes at suitable stopping points. This allows priority shipments to be integrated into existing delivery runs and thereby to be delivered faster to the consumer.