Amazon might be the largest retailer trying to implement futuristic drone delivery, but a smaller eight-year old company that makes electric trucks is testing a drone delivery system that is less Jetsons and more mailman with a flying robot.
The Workhorse Group, an Ohio-based electric truck manufacturer, which sells electric delivery trucks to UPS, has partnered with the University of Cincinnati to build and test its own fleet of package-delivery drones. The HorseFly is an autonomous drone that launches from a delivery truck, flies to a given address along a route to drop off a package, and then returns to the roof of the truck, where it is retracted back inside by a robotic arm. Inside, it is charged and reloaded with another package. The drone and electric truck work in tandem, like two robotic friends who are passionate about last mile delivery logistics.
Steve Burns, the founder and CEO of the Workhorse Group, says the last mile, a term referring to when a package leaves a distribution hub and is delivered to a customer's house, is the most expensive aspect of e-commerce delivery. But Burns says a team of electric trucks and retractable drones can save both time and money compared to a deliveryman and truck.
"A guy in a delivery truck has been the same for 100 years and we're going to change that," he says. "Diesel trucks typically cost $1 per mile and our electric truck costs 30 cents a mile and our drone delivery system costs 2 cents a mile. People say they can't envision a sky filled with drones, but with those economics there's no stopping it."
Truck-based drone deliver might sound silly, but the time it takes for a delivery man to park, jump out to grab the package and then go to the door and drop it off, burns time and money. But delivery trucks assisted by drones could make the last-mile of delivering a package faster and cheaper.
Amazon is planning a drone delivery program that will load unmanned aerial vehicles with packages at a centralized hub and fly up to 20 miles to deliver the payload and fly back. In contrast, Workhorse is planning to implement drone delivery systems in trucks going along normal delivery routes for companies like UPS. Instead of drones taking to the skies to fly long distances, the HorseFly drones are being tested to fly no more than a mile from the truck and operator.
While flying drones for commercial purposes is technically illegal, the FAA gives out exemptions to companies that apply for one, which is why you see film companies shooting with drones, real estate agents, oil companies and other businesses using drones. Workhorse received its exemption in December 2015, went public on the Nasdaq and will be testing its truck-drone delivery buddy system until the laws change. FAA exemption is still restrictive, which is why Workhorse has not sold its technology to delivery companies and why Amazon doesn't have drones flying over head. The industry will be stagnant in the US until lawmakers pass legislation, which is expected for this summer.
Burns says many companies are testing out how to use drones, but he believes the future of delivery will certainly include our robotic flying friends.
"The last mile is the Achilles heel of e-commerce," Burns says. "Next day delivery isn't good enough and now everyone wants delivery within the next hour. The drone could be as disruptive to the shipping industry as the internal combustion engine."
Below, check out Workhorse's video of its drone delivery system: