How Drones Could Disrupt the Trucking Industry

September 05, 2015 by Adam Luehrs

The Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) has not yet approved unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, for commercial use, but regulation changes will certainly affect the trucking industry in the future. Restrictions currently include a maximum speed of 100 miles per hour and an altitude of no more than 500 feet, and flights are limited to daylight hours. The United States military uses them, but business innovator and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos is also considering their use to deliver packages.

Facing Potential Challenges

Indications of the impact that drones may have on trucking are apparent in ongoing research at universities. One such project at Michigan Tech involves purposes not directly related to transporting cargo but instead employs drones to map the conditions of unpaved roads or to evaluate traffic jams, which could end up benefiting the industry. Finding low-cost and efficient ways to aid transportation authorities with mapping as well as unclogging traffic congestion also presents attractive options for government officials.

Delivery of store or warehouse products directly to customers may affect the transportation industry in the next decade, but inventory management is also projected to be impacted as heavy-duty drones become practical units rather than mere prototypes. Drones that can move pallets of material from one warehouse to another to balance inventory would significantly lower the need for trucks.

Using Drones to Deliver the Mail

Workhorse Group, which has a dual-purpose vehicle in the works, hopes to be the supplier of next-generation trucks for the United States Postal Service. The company’s electric-vehicle design has a port that allows drones to take off and land, using cellular signals and a human-controlled tablet to make deliveries with precision.

When the USPS issues a request for proposals, Workhorse hopes to land a contract for billions of dollars to produce vehicles that can last for twenty years. The rising price of postage makes the need for the USPS to stop paying workers to deliver mail increasingly important. Delivery by drone is expected to cost between $5 and $15 per delivery, as opposed to salaries of $37,950 to $53,700 for postal workers, and as the technology improves, the cost per-delivery should go down.

Recognizing Obstacles

The transition to drones faces challenges. The USPS assumes responsibility for property damaged or stolen as a result of deliveries, a feature that depends on monitoring by a human. Delivering packages in big cities presents challenges for drones, including the nearly insurmountable problem of figuring how to access apartments in skyscrapers. Companies will also have to figure out how to deal with returns.

Recognizing that change is coming to the trucking industry, an 88-year-old company decided to get publicity from it. Using a drone to photograph one of its trucks moving a huge transformer through a local community, J.E. Oswalt & Sons produced a popular online video to demonstrate the company’s proficiency and safety in transporting heavy-duty cargo While filming such a move with a drone is a far cry from performing the move with a drone, the video shows how the industry is embracing emerging technology and incorporating it into current business practices.

Before drones can become as frequently used as trucks, Congress must evaluate input from the FAA and approve legislation that expands their commercial use. Changes to the trucking industry seem likely, and preparation is necessary.

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