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New Postal Service fleet could include drones

By Andy Medici, Federal Times / / April 21st, 2015 

The Postal Service has winnowed down companies bidding to build the next generation of its delivery vehicles — and one is offering an all-electric truck that doubles as a drone launcher.

The agency released its list April 14, and companies include AM General, a contractor perhaps best known for making the Army's Humvees in the past; Fiat Chrysler Automobiles; Ford (F); and Nissan North America.

But one of the companies, Workhorse Group (WKHS), is hoping to make an impression by showing that the future could involve drones to deliver packages while mail carriers work their normal routes.

The electric delivery truck is called Workhorse while the drone that carries the packages is called HorseFly and is a product of a years-long partnership between the company and the University of Cincinnati, which has an unmanned-vehicle research program. 

"We feel very confident that our integrated drone technology on top of our electric truck is the best solution for the Postal Service as well as giving them the lowest total cost of ownership," said Duane Hughes, Workhorse Group's sales director.

The Postal Service plans on issuing a request for proposals next month, and the agency then will award several companies a contract to test a prototype. In January 2017, officials say they'll choose the best from among them.

The Postal Service would start receiving and using the vehicles one year later.

As a mail carrier begins delivering mail or other packages on an assigned route, the drone delivers a package either on its own or controlled by a pilot remotely to another address a mile or two away, saving the time and allowing the carrier to reach more addresses.

Cutting down on the time needed to complete a route and delivering more packages during that time could save the U.S. Postal Service a lot of time and money, Hughes said. The fifth generation of the HorseFly drone — its most current incarnation — weighs about 15 pounds and can carry a 10-pound package in extendable cages that lock together during flight.

The drone can fly up to 50 miles an hour but will spend most of its time flying at about 35 miles an hour, he said.

The drone also comes with automatic stabilizers to make flight easier and can dock automatically on top of the truck. It then charges itself using the electricity from the truck.

Because it is attached to the truck and driven into the neighborhood, the design removes the issue of a drone flying 30 or 40 miles to deliver a package from a warehouse, Hughes said.

The manufacturer that wins the contract has a lot at stake. The winner would provide 180,000 vehicles at $25,000 to $35,000 each, making a potential contract worth more than $4.5 billion.

The vehicles would need to last at least 20 years, carry a minimum of 1,500 pounds and pass all safety and emissions requirements across the USA. The Postal Service also wants lower maintenance requirements and better fuel economy than in its current fleet, as well as design flexibility to allow for the incorporation of future technology, according to the agency.

The lower maintenance costs and forward thinking are where Hughes thinks Workhorse Group has an advantage. He said the electric trucks would save significantly on maintenance costs while the drone platform incorporates a fast-evolving technology that will only grow in the next few years.

"As the Postal Service moves further into the package-delivery business, we have to look at it from the perspective of 'We don't want a truck to just last 20 years, but how is the business going to look in five, 10, 15 years out?' " Hughes said.

The electric vehicle has a range of 50 miles to 100 miles, depending on whether it recharges while on its route using a small generator inside the vehicle. Since almost all Postal Service routes fall within that range, that would alleviate a worry about running out of power, Hughes said.

Software included in the truck also tracks battery usage and depletion. Instead of letting the battery drain too far, the generator replenishes it in small amounts, lengthening the battery's lifetime.

The drone automatically adjusts to a wide variety of air speeds and weather conditions, using advanced software similar to large aircraft, said Kelly Cohen, professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Cincinnati. The team has emphasized overall safety heavily and has built redundant motors and controls into the drone.

"The limitations are more on the side of integration into the air space and that concerns security and overall safety," Cohen said. "How do we control 100,000 drones in the air flying at once?" 

He would like to see the system being rolled out in specific neighborhoods and expanding outward. Then enough data would be available to figure out safety concerns and adjust, Cohen said.

His team has been testing larger and more complex delivery drones, including models that can carry up to 30 pounds, he said.

"The U.S. can no longer sit back and say, 'I don't want any of this' because other countries are really enhancing their skills and capabilities in this area." - 24/7 Support including Chat 

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