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Drone meets delivery truck

UPS truck workhorse drone

UPS on Monday tested a residential package delivery, using a drone launched from the roof of a delivery truck. The drone and the delivery truck were made by Workhorse Group. In this test, the drone flew autonomously to a home where it delivered a package and returned to the vehicle – while the delivery driver continued along the route to make a separate delivery.

"It has a 30-minute flight timeand can carry a package weighing up to 10 pounds."

Longitudes sat down with Workhorse CEO Stephen Burns to learn more about the test and what it might mean for package delivery in coming years.

First things first: Tell us about the drone.

The drone used in Monday’s test was the Workhorse HorseFly™ UAV Delivery system. It is a high-efficiency, octocopter delivery drone that is fully integrated with Workhorse’s line of electric and hybrid delivery trucks.

The drone docks on the roof of the delivery truck. A cage suspended beneath the drone extends through a hatch into the truck. A UPS driver inside loads a package into the cage and presses a button on a touch screen, sending the drone on a pre-set autonomous route to an address.

The battery-powered HorseFly drone recharges while it’s docked. It has a 30-minute flight time and can carry a package weighing up to 10 pounds.

What did it take to make your vision a reality?

The FAA started letting us test this technology for ourselves about a year ago. So we’ve had a lot of tests. Now to see the leader in parcel delivery take it and use it – we think it’s a new day.

It takes batteries. It takes motors. It takes software, and it takes somebody who really understands how these fly. And then you’ve got to integrate it all into the top of a truck.

What does the driver see?

The driver or logistics software determines the spot that is good for a drone delivery. Then the driver scans the package, the claw opens up, the driver puts the item in the claw, it closes. A flat screen shows the satellite image of the address. The driver touches the screen to indicate precisely where the package should be delivered – based on his or her experience.

"To see the leader in parcel delivery take and use our drones - we think it's a new day."

At this point, the drone is autonomous (in Monday’s test, for FAA comfort, someone had a control unit). Then the drone makes the delivery and later redocks on the truck at a new location along the delivery route.

What’s next?

Both the regulatory side and the technical side are changing. For example, right now, we have one drone on the roof. But we’re trying to see if we can get three, four, five drones on the roof. So basically you’d have a rolling warehouse, and where appropriate, drones would jump off and return.

For our team, this is a Kitty Hawk moment. We have been working on this for quite some time. A truck-launched drone that complies with all the FAA rules and brings efficiency to the process – and it flies for pennies a mile in electricity. We really feel it’s going to find its way into the delivery space.

The hardest part is getting the first one in the air. But if you look into the future, there may be corridors where drones are allowed to fly, all talking to each other, all talking to a ground station, talking to the trucks and back to headquarters. That’s the technology that’s coming.

As the technology pieces come together, as motors are lighter and batteries more powerful, tracking systems more sophisticated, I really think the time is now. 

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Longitudes explores and navigates the trends reshaping the global economy and the way we’ll live in the world of tomorrow: logistics, technology, e-commerce, trade and sustainability. Which path will you take?

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