Written by Stephen Burns, founder and chief executive of Workhorse Group. This is one in a series of periodic guest columns by industry thought leaders.
Innovation is something that we tend to recognize only in hindsight, after – sometimes long after – it has occurred. But it’s hard not to acknowledge that we are living in a period of dramatic change for how packages get delivered. Just picture the fleets of delivery trucks driving around our neighborhoods throughout the Christmas season. How many of us have bought an item from an online retailer in the afternoon only to see it arrive at our doorstep the next day?
Thank the innovators in Silicon Valley and at Amazon.com as well as the rise of e-commerce for developing a better way for finding, purchasing and receiving goods from our homes.
The paradigm shift from trips by shoppers to brick-and-mortar stores to clicks on e-commerce websites caused a dramatic increase in the number of items that needed delivering to homes across America. To propel the revolution further, many web-only-based sellers, or e-tailers, began offering free delivery. While this expense is an initial loss, its recouped over the long term because the middleman – the retailer – is cut out.
Those who are familiar with the current architecture of last-mile parcel delivery readily see how far it has come since starting with just a horse and rider and then advancing to wagons and trucks. Delivery companies in America, for example, now make use of innovations such as tracking packages, telematics to measure efficiency and high-end training to create the world’s best professional drivers.
However – like in any industry – there is always room for improvement, and the delivery business is no exception. That is why we see a combination of drones and electric trucks as the next significant advancement in package delivery technologies.
Workhorse Group is developing this type of delivery by testing our Horsefly electric drone in concert with our electric step vans, which are built by putting delivery-truck bodies from mainstream companies like FedEx, UPS or Alpha Baking onto a chassis powered by lithium-ion batteries from Panasonic. Rather than having our drones make individual trips from a warehouse of packages, we’ve simply put each drone on top of a delivery truck.
While doing this is a unique approach right now, we anticipate that the drone-and-truck system will catch on slowly before becoming part of the mainstream model for package delivery.
Basing drones on the top of delivery trucks is a practical model because it eliminates a host of issues that arise when flying drones directly from warehouses. Drones, for example, have a carrying capacity of about 10 pounds, which is sufficient for handling most packages, but certainly not all of them.
Also, by putting the drone on top of the truck, the delivery driver can use the drone strategically for last-mile deliveries to isolated locations when driving the whole way would be inefficient. Today’s drivers do a fantastic job of handling all deliveries that come their way, but making things just a little bit more efficient for them would be beneficial for everyone.
A drone-and-truck system is extremely efficient. A driver making deliveries to homes in a rural landscape will venture off the main roads several times to deliver small parcels to secluded homes. These side trips not only take up time, but they also cost fuel and maintenance fees by putting wear-and-tear on the truck.
UPS estimates that by reducing just one mile per driver, per day, over one year can save up to $50 million. Using drones to fly the small parcels that are going to isolated locations frees up the driver to handle larger packages and focus on homes in areas with higher concentrations of deliveries.
Our system addresses another shortcoming for warehouse-based drones by working within current Federal Aviation Administration regulations, which require drones to be within the pilot’s “line of sight” while flying. Placing drones on top of electric trucks makes it feasible for a delivery business to use our innovative technology and comply with FAA regulations.
Some might question the safety of having drones flying to and fro, often across residential areas. But drones are particularly safe because of how extensively they have been tested and refined over the years. While the idea of using them on top of delivery trucks is new, drones are already employed in many diverse areas, including aiding U.S. armed forces in counter-terrorism operations and entertaining Drone Racing League fans on ESPN.
It is also possible that lingering anxieties exist about drones because they are not as widely seen in the U.S. compared with Europe, which has more innovation-friendly rules for flying unmanned aircraft. That’s why we are seeing some companies test drones there.
Before delivery drones become a common site in U.S. neighborhoods, there is plenty of work to be done.
First, regulators have to determine whether “line of sight” will stay the law of the land. When the FAA handed down this regulation in early 2015, Popular Science called it “an insurmountable obstacle for drone delivery companies.” Nevertheless, it’s an important reassurance to have in place while people get familiar with the sight and concept of delivery drones.
Second, delivery companies have so far demonstrated an admirably enterprising spirit with their willingness to utilize drones – as well as electric step trucks – but that pursuit of innovation mustn’t cease. New technologies can revolutionize the package delivery process by making it faster, lowering costs and reducing environmental consequences.
The final responsibility for making delivery drones mainstream in America rests on our shoulders. As innovators, we have devised solutions – and will continue to come up with more – that improve package delivery and commercial transportation in general. Great inventions are only part of what innovation requires. The other side of the equation is putting our new technologies into the hands of end-users. One way is by partnering with other pioneering companies.
Just this past February, Workhorse Group and UPS teamed up to successfully test the drone-and-truck system in Florida. Was this moment of innovation the harbinger for the future of package delivery? Will drones become mainstream for America's delivery companies in 2018, 2020 or 2025? We’re hopeful it's sooner rather than later, but like the horse, wagon and delivery truck before it, we fulfilled the first challenge by developing the next delivery technology. All that's left is to disseminate it.
Editor’s Note: Stephen Burns is founder and chief executive of Workhorse Group, a manufacturer of battery-electric delivery vehicles and fully integrated truck-launched unmanned aerial systems.