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Drones are Delivering the Future

June 2016, Work Truck - Feature

by Lauren Fletcher - Also by this author

Once approved by the FAA, Workhorse will release a version of the E-GEN hybrid-electric truck that has been specifically designed to incorporate HorseFly. (PHOTO: WORKHORSE)
Once approved by the FAA, Workhorse will release a version of the E-GEN hybrid-electric truck that has been specifically designed to incorporate HorseFly. (PHOTO: WORKHORSE)

Delivery fleets are on the verge of a shift in how some packages are going to be delivered. The future of package delivery is going electric and incorporating drones.

Steve Burns, CEO of Workhorse Group, is on a mission to be the first to get an electric truck with a drone to deliver packages on the road, while meeting the “line of sight” requirement set by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

Currently, the drones are still in the testing phase, but Workhorse’s electric vehicles are on the road. Also, drivers can rest assured, according to Burns, “Our drone is designed not to replace a driver but rather make a driver more productive.”

Going Electric

Workhorse’s hybrid-electric delivery trucks (Workhorse E-GEN) are currently deployed by UPS. Once approved by the FAA, Workhorse will release a version of the E-GEN truck specifically designed to incorporate the HorseFly delivery drone. 

The E-GEN Drive uses a combination of battery power and a small internal combustion engine to more than four times the miles per gallon attained by a typical fleet vehicle. In addition to dramatically increasing the fuel economy, the E-GEN trucks are designed to virtually eliminate the heavy maintenance usually associated with heavy, stop-and-go vehicles.

The E-GEN drivetrain is propelled by a 200 kW Sumo electric motor/generator with a 60 kWh pack built with Panasonic 18650 Li-Ion cells.

According to Workhorse, it’s powerful enough to eliminate the need for a transmission and, if the battery state of charge falls below a predetermined level, and the vehicle is in PARK, a small internal combustion engine (ICE) automatically turns on and powers a generator to recharge the battery to its required level, thereby eliminating range anxiety.

Steve Burns, CEO of Workhorse Group, is on a mission to be the first to get an electric truck with a drone to deliver packages on the road, while meeting the “line of sight” requirement set by the FAA.

Flying Delivery

Workhorse’s drone — an “octocopter” called HorseFly — has a 10-pound payload capacity. Given a package and a delivery destination, it lifts off from the vehicle roof, navigates to an address using GPS and is guided down safely by a human pilot in a remote location; it then returns to the truck roof for recharging.

In December 2015, the FAA granted Workhorse Exemption No. 13564 (Regulatory Docket No. FAA-2015-3055) following the company’s petition requesting Section 333 exemption to test its HorseFly unmanned aerial system (UAS), stating, in part “in consideration of the size, weight, speed, and limited operating area associated with the aircraft and its operation, the Secretary of Transportation has determined that this aircraft meets the conditions of Section 333.... [T]he UAS operation enabled by this exemption is in the public interest.”

Two of the main hurdles in delivering packages via drone are technology and regulation.

“After several years of effort and great help from the University of Cincinnati Aerospace, we feel we have solved the technological hurdles. But, all commercial use of drones is prohibited by the FAA in the United States,” Burns said.

Currently, Workhorse is testing HorseFly in U.S. airspace while the company collects data. 

“This exemption has been invaluable to us as we continue to refine our system under real-life delivery of packages to homes and businesses,” Burns continued.

Benefits of drone delivery include a reduction in delivery expense.

“Drone delivery can be up to 50 times less expensive compared to conventional methods of delivery, such as a person in a large diesel truck delivering the same package. A drone also has the benefits of zero emissions and virtually zero maintenance,” Burns said.

When might delivery by drone become a reality?

“We are hoping the FAA will come out with the definitive set of rules/laws toward the end of this year. But, as with any government agency, timing is difficult to predict,” Burns said. “I think delivery drones are as significant an invention toward the delivery of goods as the invention of the internal combustion engine more than 100 years ago.” 

The HorseFly Drone

The HorseFly UAV is given a package and a delivery destination by a delivery driver, using a touchscreen interface in the delivery truck. (PHOTO: WORKHORSE)
The HorseFly UAV is given a package and a delivery destination by a delivery driver, using a touchscreen interface in the delivery truck. (PHOTO: WORKHORSE)

Workhorse Group is developing HorseFly, an eight-rotor “octocopter,” designed to be used in tandem with its EPA-approved electric truck.

HorseFly is given a package and a delivery destination by a delivery driver, using a touchscreen interface in the delivery truck. It launches itself from the delivery vehicle and ascends to a safe cruising altitude, then navigates to the desired delivery point autonomously using GPS navigation.

When HorseFly reaches the GPS delivery destination, a human pilot in a remote location monitors the descent with a multi-camera video feed and executes the package drop-off. HorseFly then ascends back to a safe cruising altitude. It then navigates to the new location of the delivery truck, and uses infrared (IR) tracking to land and dock with the truck.

HorseFly then recharges its battery using the onboard battery of the electric vehicle.

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