Category Archives: News

Developments in the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Industry

U.S. Postal Service Drones to Start Deliveries?

Could the U.S. Postal Service be looking to hire drone operators in the not-so-distant future? It’s a definite possibility. The USPS may start to deploy drones to deliver the mail, not out of any desire to blaze new trails, but out of financial necessity.

The USPS has a fleet of 163,000 right-hand drive delivery vehicles. This familiar “Long Life Vehicle” design was put into service 27 years ago, and now they are are starting to show their age. Not only are they are becoming increasingly expensive to maintain, but these trucks typically average only about 9 or 10 miles per gallon of fuel due to the constant stop-and-go motion required of them. As a result, in 2014 the USPS spent well over a half billion dollars on gasoline.

Workhorse truck with Horsefly drone
Photo: University of Cincinnati/Lisa Ventre

“…Workhorse’s bid offers an all-electric truck… that also has the ability to launch drones.”

It was for this reason that on January 20, 2015, the postal service asked companies to submit bids for new delivery vehicles at $25,000 to $35,000 apiece. Considering that they are looking to purchasing 180,000 of these vehicles, this will be a government contract worth $4.5 to $6.3 billion to whoever wins it. Needless to say, they have received bids from several big automakers: Ford, Nissan, Fiat Chrysler, etc… But they also received a bid from a company called Workhorse Group Inc. (formerly AMP Holding). Developed in conjunction with the University of Cincinnati, Workhorse’s bid offers an all-electric truck… that also has the ability to launch drones.

This electric truck design, also called “Workhorse”  carries an octocopter drone named “Horsefly”.  Horsefly can be launched from the truck and used to deliver the mail. It is able to carry a 10 pound package and travel at a top speed of 50 mph. However, one of the drawbacks of small electric drones like Horsefly is their relatively short battery life (of 20-30 minutes).  Workhorse has overcome this hurdle by giving their truck the ability to recharge the drone once it returns from a delivery.

(For more photos, check out this article by Federal Times: New Postal Service delivery fleet could include drones.)

Here’s how it would work: the driver begins the process by scanning a package into a tablet computer in the truck. The tablet will respond by displaying a satellite map view of the customer’s address.  Horsefly would then be dispatched to fly autonomously to the designated GPS coordinates and hover above the area. However, it would be the driver using his or her experience with their route, who would determine where Horsefly would actually land and drop off  its package.  A human operator would be responsible for lowering the drone and its cargo to the ground. This is necessary to deal with any obstacles or unforeseen possibilities that may be present near the landing site like trees, kids, telephone lines, etc… Then Horsefly would return to its truck to either deliver another package or recharge its batteries.

Fast forward to April 14th. The USPS released its “shortlist” of  bidders it was considering for its vehicle contract and guess what? Workhorse was on this list. Now this could simply be because electric trucks (even without drones) are already a very attractive proposition to the Post Office. Why? Let’s compare:

  • Delivery cost via diesel-powered delivery truck: about $1 per mile
  • Delivery cost via electric-powered delivery truck: 30 cents per mile

You may be thinking, “But if electric vehicles would already provide such a huge savings, why would the Post Office need to try drones?”. Here’s one reason:

  • Estimated delivery cost via Horsefly aerial drone: 3 cents per mile

Here’s another: in 2014, labor costs accounted for 78% of USPS expenses overall. U.S. postal service drones could enable the agency to deliver more parcels with less personnel. And this is an agency that has been losing billions of dollars in recent years. So you can see why they might seriously consider incorporating unmanned aerial vehicles into their fleet. Necessity may once again prove itself to be the mother of invention.

What does all of this mean? In a few years if you want to get a job delivering the mail, you may need not only a driver’s license, but a drone pilot’s license as well.


Disney Files Drone Patents

There are so many potential uses for unmanned aerial vehicles, and yet I continue to be amazed when someone comes up with a completely new use for drones that never even occurred to me. Thank you Disney. That’s right, the Walt Disney Company has applied for not one, but three patents with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

What could Disney possibly need drones for? To spy on rival theme parks? Shoot groundbreaking new footage for “Planes 2”? Keep out the pigeons? The real answer might be more interesting still.

mickey mouse-shaped droneThese patents, filed by the company’s subsidiary Disney Enterprises on August 21st, 2104, envision the possible use of drones in the bland-sounding “aerial display systems”. But if you look at these patents more closely, what this really means is that Disney parks might soon be bringing a whole new mind-blowing dimension to their parades and light shows.

Disney’s first patent focuses on using aerial drones to move and position flexible mesh projection screens within a designated display air space. These lightweight screens could then be used to display ever-changing lights or images in the sky.

drones flying around Cinderella's castle
Is there a gigantic color-changing tree enveloping Cinderella’s castle? It could be all part of a show brought to you by drones

The second patent outlines the use of unmanned aerial vehicles to create a “floating pixel”, christened the “flixel” by Disney Imagineers.  In this case the drone itself provides the light source – no screen needed. This concept could augment or possibly even replace the fireworks the parks use now on a nightly basis. After all, digital fireworks would be safer,  more precise, and less expensive.

flixel drone
Conceptual drawing of an aerial display system with floating pixels

The third patent application might be the most wild UAV concept of all. Imagine those giant balloons from the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade on steroids. Multiple drones would attach to these kinds of balloons to make them move. Or take it a step further: the drones could attach to the limbs of super large puppets and make those move, enabling the puppets to appear to walk.

drone-controlled puppet
Aerial display system with marionettes articulated and supported by airborne devices
giant jack skellington puppet
So basically a giant, drone-powered Jack Skellington walking through Disneyland? Bring it on.

Of course, one of the interesting things about all three of these patents is that for any of them to work correctly, very tight coordination of many UAVs would be crucial.  To address this, Disney’s Research & Development team is working to create a ground control station,  incorporating a command and control system that could choreograph a selection of repeatable aerial maneuvers. What other uses could an enterprising individual find for such a system? It boggles the mind.

FAA Test Sites for UAVs

In 2012, the U.S. Congress passed the FAA Modernization and Reform Act, which directed the Federal Aviation Administration to establish a test site program to integrate drones (or Unmanned Aircraft Systems as the FAA likes to call them) into the National Airspace System.

In other words, the FAA’s task is come up with a way for drones to fly safely in the same vicinity as commercial airliners. And while this is very much both a worthy and achievable goal, it is by no means an easy one. To do it right will take a lot of research, which is where these FAA test sites come in.

After reviewing submissions from organizations in 24 states, the FAA picked 6 applicants to each operate a test site. These sites are to be managed so that all qualified interested parties can be given access to use them, while maintaining oversight and strict safety standards. Test site operators are required to comply with federal, state, and local laws governing privacy.

FAA-logoEach of the six sites offers a specialized area of study. These sites are:

1) Griffiss International Airport (NY)
Specialization: Develop “sense and avoid” abilities in drones. This is fundamental to the integration of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles into the already crowded airspace of the U.S.

2) North Dakota Department of Commerce
Specialization: Evaluate and improve UAV airworthiness, as well as conduct research on human factors that can impact drone usability.

North Dakota’s site was the first of the 6 planned sites to become operational. This news was announced on April 21, 2014, which puts this milestone over 2 months ahead of Congress’ schedule.

3) State of Nevada
Specialization: Drone operator competency standards and certification requirements, as well as the effect of UAVs on air traffic control systems.

4) Texas A&M University Corpus Christi – led by the Lone Star Unmanned Aircraft Systems Center (LSUASC)
Specialization: Develop safety standards for UAV operations, and procedures for testing airworthiness.

5) Viginia Tech (Virginia Center for Autonomous Systems)
Specialization: UAV failure mode testing and identification of risks areas.

Viginia Tech’s site was the final of the 6 planned sites to be declared operational. This occurred at an event at the site on August 13, 2014, which featured Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe. Governor McAuliffe said that unmanned aircraft “are going to be used in countless industries all across the commonwealth, the country and the globe. They will of course improve productivity, support advanced rescue operations and revolutionize the way that we do business, and I’m just glad that the kickoff is right here in the commonwealth of Virginia.”

This test site’s airspace includes portions of Virginia, New Jersey and Maryland.

6) University of Alaska
Specialization: Development of standards for different types of aerial drones, including flight data monitoring and navigation. Also includes testing in seven climatic zones with additional locations in Hawaii and Oregon.

Whatever the area of study of these test sites, each of them represent a huge step on the road toward unlocking the world-changing potential of unmanned aircraft systems. These test sites also begin to unlock the economic and job creation potential of unmanned aircraft. Their proximity will almost certainly provide a significant boost to local economies.