Delivery companies obsess about finding the perfect route to drive through town, since every detail matters for saving fuel and reducing pollution: UPS drivers, for example, rarely turn left, which has saved the company around 10 million gallons of gas over the last decade. But the most efficient trucks are nothing compared to drones, which could completely transform the cost and carbon footprint of delivery.
The new HorseFly octocopter—a small drone with eight rotors—is designed to live on the back of a electric delivery truck. As the truck makes some of its usual rounds, the HorseFly splits off to make more deliveries in the area. If the battery needs an extra charge, it can power up directly on the truck.
"Rather than flying it from the warehouse, you might fly it where you have deliveries to five or six homes within a certain area," says Dan Zito from AMP Electric Vehicles, a company that manufactures electric trucks and recently decided to expand into the world of unmanned aerial vehicles. "That makes it unique."
When Amazon started talking about using drones for home deliveries, critics pointed out that short battery life would make it hard to cover long distances. But by eliminating trips all the way back to a warehouse, the HorseFly has made using unmanned aerial vehicles for everyday delivery a lot more feasible.
The design is almost ready to use for small packages, though the company, which has been working with the University of Cincinnati on the project, wants to add a few more features. "We want to install cameras—that makes bringing it down in a landing situation safer, so it could also be observed by an operator, someone who could take over the flying if necessary," says Zito. "It can be autonomous, but we don’t want it to seem uncontrollable on its own."
The HorseFly will also have to wait until the FAA approves the commercial use of drones, something that’s expected to happen later this year or early next year.
When it does make it on the road, the drone could make a huge difference. Small packages could be delivered faster and more cheaply. AMP’s electric truck costs about 28 cents a mile, but the Horsefly would cost only two cents.
Delivery could also have almost no carbon footprint, depending on the source of the battery charge. The Horsefly is designed for use with electric or hybrid trucks, but even if it was paired with traditional diesel-guzzling trucks—which average around six miles per gallon in bad traffic—it would help drastically cut fuel use.
And without so many delivery trucks double-parked as long on city streets, traffic could also get better. Congestion alone leads to an extra 56 billion pounds of CO2 emissions in the U.S.
Drones don't have the best image at the moment, but they might be a simple way to help trim pollution in cities.