The U.S. Postal Service is currently fielding bids from vehicle manufacturers to develop new vehicles and delivery methods for its fleet, and an interesting outsider has made its latest shortlist – the octocopter drone designed and built by The University of Cincinnati College of Engineering and Applied Science, and developed by UAV specialists Workhorse Group, Inc.
The delivery system is based around a ‘base’ van – called ‘WorkHorse’ – and an itinerant drone attached to it – called ‘HorseFly’. The latter is an eight-rotored autonomous unmanned vehicle (UAV) which can wirelessly recharge itself in two minutes from the base van. The delivery method involves the self-sufficient drone scanning the barcode of a package before using GPS to calculate the best route from the van to the address. The short distance between the van and end-point addresses some of the most prominent concerns raised in the last few years regarding the viability of delivery droids undertaking relatively long flights over urban areas.
“Our premise with HorseFly is that the HorseFly sticks close to the horse,” Workhorse CEO Steve Burns commented last year “If required, the HorseFly will wirelessly recharge from the large battery in the WorkHorse truck. The fact that the delivery trucks are sufficiently scattered within almost any region during the day makes for short flights, as opposed to flying from the warehouse for each delivery,”
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The HorseFly has multiple hardware and software redundancy systems, and can be taken over as necessary by human operators in a flight centre. Recognising public concern about UAV in civil environments, Burns contends that the collaboration between UC and WorkHorse (formerly AMP) has resulted in “a vehicle that will not drop out of the sky,” The Federal Aviation Authority is expected to offer a catch-up framework for drone use in the commercial sector this year, but ongoing misgivings about self-controlled drones mean that HorseFly has an extra hurdle to overcome with respect to its bidding competitors.
Kelly Cohen, an associate professor of aerospace engineering and engineering mechanics at UC, observed “With the HorseFly project, we developed a brand-new aircraft and airframe from scratch, and we built the system with the ability to look into different applications. Now we can build a family of octorotors and find out the best possible configuration…There is no textbook on multirotor aircraft design. Here we have been pioneering this effort, and we’ve come up with something successful,”
Workhouse Group Inc. are contending for the federal project along with 15 more obvious candidates including Fiat, GM and Nissan.