Workhorse Group will begin commercial testing with an undisclosed online retailer early next year of a new low-step electric delivery truck, some of which will be outfitted with the company’s “HorseFly” last-mile delivery drone.
The company announced the test agreement Tuesday and said the first deliveries with the Class 2 “N-Gen” truck should begin in the first quarter of 2018 in California and Ohio.
“This is big news here in the U.S,” said Cathy Morrow Roberson, principal and lead analyst at Atlanta-based Logistics Trends & Insights. “There will be kinks to work out, but this could help lower delivery costs in the long run, and certainly could make deliveries faster— and that’s the key. Time is money in the delivery service.”
Using the optional battery-powered HorseFly drone to drop packages along a driver’s route can shave hundreds of dollars from weekly operating costs for a delivery service by cutting the amount of time a $40-per-hour driver is on the road and increasing the number of deliveries made per shift, said Workhorse Chief Executive Steve Burns.
The program won’t mark the first commercial use of delivery drones — DHL uses drones to deliver medical supplies to a remote island in its native Germany, and delivery drones also are in use in China, said Roberson.
Delivery drone tests also are being run by major retail operators, including Walmart, e-commerce giant Amazon and Google parent Alphabet. The U.S. Marine Corps also has been testing disposable wooden glider drones for delivery of supplies to troops in remote areas.
Workhorse, based near Cincinnati, has been testing its drone since 2015, most recently in conjunction with UPS, but this new agreement marks the first commercial-use program.
Burns said the contract prohibits Workhorse from identifying the customer or the number of trucks and drones that have been ordered. The first-quarter start is later than the company's earlier estimate of commercial deliveries by Christmas, but such projections are always contingent on production schedules and customer readiness.
Although it won't start until after the holiday rush, the program still “will be one to watch” because it is a real-world commercial test, said Roberson.
The rise of e-commerce could make this a record year for deliveries, she said. “We may see a 50/50 split” between online purchases and retail purchases at brick-and-mortar stores.
That split would probably carry over into 2018 and beyond as online shopping continues to grow.
Not everyone is thrilled at the idea of drones flying into residential neighborhoods to drop packages. A Pew Research Center poll conducted several years ago found that 61 percent of respondents disliked the idea of commercial drones in U.S. airspace.
But delivery-dependent businesses are looking for opportunities to shave operating costs, and drones are one way to do that. The FAA last year published a rulebook for commercial drones that permits package delivery if the drone is within the operator’s line of sight — defined as up to 2 miles, according to Workhorse.
Workhorse said its HorseFly drone costs 3-cents per mile to operate, versus an average of $1 a mile for a diesel truck.
“That’s a nice cost saver” over traditional truck-to-door delivery, which varies by carrier but can be many times that amount, said Roberson.
The Horsefly drone, an electric “octocopter” design with eight small motors, is capable of carrying a 10-pound package. It can fly up to 30 minutes on a single charge and tops out at 50 mph.
It launches from and returns to a pad mounted on top of a Workhorse electric truck and can make deliveries up to 2 miles from the van — the “line of sight” distance permitted under FAA rules.
It uses on-board GPS for route guidance and an infrared camera to detect obstacles in flight and to help guide package drop-off at the delivery site and landing atop the delivery van. The van driver also can monitor the drone remotely while proceeding to the next stop on the route after launching.
If any obstacle — tree, power pole, church steeple or even a bird — is observed by the drone’s camera, the operating software instructs the drone to alert the driver and hover in place. The driver can then park the delivery van and take over manual control of the drone.
The drone and its launch platform and operating software are an option for the new Workhorse N-Gen delivery van, an all-wheel-drive electric van with a tight 26-foot turning radius and an extremely low cargo floor that facilitates loading and unloading and increases the total cargo volume.
That van uses a Workhorse-designed panel truck body of composite plastics on the company’s newly designed low-step platform. The chassis was designed for Workhorse’s proposed postal delivery van — the company is a finalist for a seven-year contract to provide replacements for up to 180,000 U.S. Postal Service mail delivery trucks.
The N-Gen van’s 19-inch floor requires only one step up, saving wear-and-tear on drivers’ knees and backs. A traditional step-van’s floor is about 26 inches above the road. The lowered floor increases the N-Gen van’s cargo capacity to 500 cubic feet, versus 320 to 480 cubic feet for short- and standard-bodied Mercedes-Benz Sprinter vans.
The van is outfitted with Workhorse’s range-extended electric drive system, which uses a battery-electric drivetrain charged from the commercial power grid. It can be augmented with an optional range-extender, a tiny two-cylinder gasoline generator. It is the same one, borrowed from the BMW C600 motor scooter, that is used in range-extended models of BMW’s i3 electric city car.
The van is rated by Workhorse at up to 100 miles of travel on fully charged batteries, with an additional 75 miles of range available with power from the generator. The company says a diesel van would have to achieve 63 miles per gallon to equal the N-Gen van’s overall fuel efficiency.
The N-Gen’s first public showing is slated for the 2018 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.
Production of the 7,500-pound gross vehicle weight, Class 2 van will begin in the first quarter next year, and Workhorse has said it intends to be building larger versions of the N-Gen van, up to Class 5 models with 1,000-cubic-foot cargo areas, by the end of 2018.
In addition to the N-Gen, Workhorse builds the larger E-Gen electric delivery truck, is preparing to go into production on the W-15 electric pickup truck and has developed the “SureFly” hybrid-electric commuter octocopter — a helicopter with eight small electric motor-driven propellers rather than a single large overhead rotor.