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.

 

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One thought on “U.S. Postal Service Drones to Start Deliveries?

  1. Nice!
    The next few years are going to be pretty interesting. As soon as the FAA loosens up on it regulations… Sooo many more companies will be ready to fly! especially Amazon.

    Looking forward to more post.

    Cheers!

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