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Workhorse CEO Burns Explains How Drones Will Change Delivery Trucks

Steve Burns, chief executive of Workhorse Group Inc. with HorseFly delivery drone.

The video shows a small drone launching from the top of a UPS-style delivery truck, flying a package to a nearby house and returning to the vehicle.

While this seems like a scene from a futuristic movie, it’s actually video of a recent test by electric- and hybrid-truck manufacturer Workhorse Group Inc. of its HorseFly delivery drone.

Workhorse has Federal Aviation Administration permission to test the system, which could be in operation soon, said Steve Burns, chief executive of the Cincinnati manufacturing company.

The drone would augment the duties of delivery drivers, reducing their mileage and saving their employers time and money.

“If you have three deliveries to the right,” Burns said, “and one delivery a mile to the left, why not give the one to the left to the bird?”

Burns presented the video preview at the 2016 Advanced Clean Transportation Expo in Long Beach this week. He talked to Trucks.com afterward.

Q: When will people see delivery drones flying in their neighborhood skies? Do you have a timetable for when the drones might be available?

A: The regulations are supposed to come out at the end of the year. We built the whole thing to comply with what is likely to be the law. They (regulators) are six years late, but they’re supposed to do it this year. There’s a lot of activity in Congress.

Q: Will we see this from Amazon and others?

A: The Amazons of the world want drones to be able to fly 30 miles. We keep our drone within line of sight with the driver. It’s more than likely that the regulation is going to require line of sight for a few years. There is no line of sight if you don’t have a truck. You can’t go from an Amazon warehouse 30 miles in line of sight.

Q: Will the drone re-dock even when the truck is moving?

A: No, that’s one of their rules. That can change, but not right now. It was hard enough just to get them to go for docking to a stationary truck.

Q: Who is going to purchase your delivery drones?

A: We haven’t been saying because everybody is so afraid to announce that they’re going into drones until the law comes. But I think it’s fair to say that we’re talking to a lot of the major folks that deliver things. Everybody is waiting for the law to catch up. We just want to have the technology ready when the law hits.

Q: Is anyone worried about a sky littered with delivery drones?

A: With the line of sight, you’re OK, but if Amazon and Google get what they want – a low line of sight — then it will be just everybody out for themselves. Your drones will need to have sense-and-avoid technology so that they can see each other or be talking to a control center and avoid each other.

It’s going to get hairy. I don’t know how it’s going to be handled.

Q: And you’re confident about this technology.

A: I’m confident about the technology, but I can’t, of course, be comfortable about the regulatory situation because nobody can control that. But we’ve been testing and testing since the FAA gave us that exemption. Nobody in the world has a truck-launched drone, so I think we stand alone. It’s cool to be completely the only one.

It’s the only way that we could figure out to comply with the FAA’s line of sight. Because, if you look at it, any given moment, delivery trucks are within a mile of a home some time during the day, right? They’re everywhere.

Q: Is the landing the hardest thing?

A: Yeah, the landing is the hardest thing to do, in the wind. They’re not a precision landing device. I really do believe that you’ll one day be on some dusty road in Indiana and see a truck going down it and a drone catching up and landing on the truck.

Editor’s note: This interview was condensed and edited slightly for clarity.