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UPS Looks to the Future With Drone Delivery

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【Summary】In February of 2017, UPS began testing a drone delivery system developed by Workhorse Group, an Ohio-based company that builds commercial, hybrid electric trucks, batteries and develops aerospace technologies.

Original Eric Walz    Jun 30, 2017 5:41 PM PT
UPS Looks to the Future With Drone Delivery

United Parcel Service (UPS) is the world's largest package delivery company. The global company is headquartered in Sandy Springs, Georgia, United States. UPS delivers more than 15 million packages per day to more than 7.9 million customers in more than 220 countries and territories around the world.

Like many other companies, UPS is constantly exploring ways to save money while better serving its customers. One way the company is looking to achieve this is by using drones to supplement its package delivery service.

In February of 2017, UPS began testing a drone delivery system developed by Workhorse Group, an Ohio-based company that builds commercial, hybrid electric trucks, batteries and develops aerospace technologies.

The HorseFly UAV

Developed by Workhorse in early 2016, the eight-rotor delivery drone, called the HorseFly UAV, can carry packages weighing up to 10 pounds and fly autonomously for 30 minutes.

The drone recharges while docking on the roof of a electric delivery vehicle. UPS has purchased 350 of these Workhorse electric hybrid trucks, 125 of which are already on the road today.

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As for the HorseFly itself, the 9.5-pound drone features a carbon fiber construction, is powered by a proprietary lithium 18650 battery pack, and capable of a 30-minute flight time at a top speed of 45 miles per hour, the company says. By contrast, most consumer drones will only fly for about 22 minutes. The HorseFly can carry a package up to 10 pounds (4.53 kg), allowing UPS to handle a wide range of residential deliveries.

How the Drone Works

The company's new HorseFly UAV Delivery system used in the UPS test was tailored to work with its vehicles. While the Horsefly drone is docked, a UPS driver can load packages into the drone and then confirm its flight path through the truck's dashboard. In its first test flight, UPS successfully used the drone to deliver a shipment to a customer's home in Lithia, Florida.

The UPS truck for the test was built to be able to launch the HorseFly drone from its roof, then grab it upon its return with robotic arms. A cage suspended beneath the drone extends through a hatch in the truck, where the drone can be lowered down and loaded up with another package. While docked, the drone's batteries recharge through a physical connection between its arms and the truck's electric battery.

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HorseFly's guidance system draws from online databases covering airspace, topographic, weather and wind conditions, and data from onboard sensors like a GPS Compass, LIDAR, and infrared camera for landing.

Flight Challenges

"The toughest thing, technically, is having the HorseFly drone re-mate with the electric truck," explains Workhorse CEO Steve Burns. "There's a small portal…we basically have to have a robotics system up on the top that grabs it, picks it up, and puts it in the hole."

The whole system itself is built for redundancy, he adds. If one prop goes out, the drone could still fly. If two go out, it can at least land. And if the 4G LTE connection becomes unavailable– a strong possibility in rural areas– the drone could still communicate with the truck via RF.

Drone Delivery May Save Millions

Drone delivery may help lower costs, specifically in rural locations where cars have to drive miles between individual deliveries. UPS states reducing driving distance by only one mile per day for each driver could save the company up to $50 million in a year.

UPS wants to lower prices to stay ahead of potential competition from Amazon, which has been testing its own delivery drones in the UK. Amazon says that drone delivery is a key part of its strategy to lower delivery costs, and its efforts in this space could allow it to compete directly with UPS.

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Partnering with Workhorse Group to launch drone delivery from its trucks could be an inexpensive way for UPS to integrate drone delivery into its everyday operations. In comparison, Amazon is running its tests in the UK with a fulfillment center specifically designed to facilitate drone delivery. If Amazon had to retrofit its existing fulfillment centers to allow for delivery by drones, it would likely be much more expensive and time-consuming than UPS' approach.

According to UPS Vice President of Engineering, John Dodero, the company's goal is to have drones work off of any type of vehicle, whether gas-powered or electric, to make last-mile deliveries. "That nest that we have on top of the car would be able to be put on any car, but we have to make sure it has the capabilities and it's set up to do the charging," he explains.

FAA Regulations Stalling Drone Testing

Drone delivery still faces significant regulatory hurdles in the United States. The FAA prohibits all commercial drones from flying beyond the sight of their pilots. In compliance with this rule, UPS' test took place within sight of the delivery driver. However, the rule would severely limit the ability to scale any commercial drone delivery operation.

For the UPS test flight, the HorseFly had to stay within the line of sight of a pilot, per current FAA regulations. It also flew on a pre-configured route programmed for the purposes of the test. However in a real-world operation, UPS's proprietary routing software, called the On-Road Integrated Optimization and Navigation, or ORION system, could be used to determine routes for drones to fly.

Last year, Congress ordered the FAA to create new regulations that would allow for commercial drone delivery by 2018, however a recent executive order by the Trump administration raised doubts about whether the FAA will implement such rules. Without new drone delivery regulations, it's probable that companies like UPS will have to shift their drone delivery tests to foreign markets for the time being, as Amazon did with its drone testing in the UK.

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