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The Amp Horsefly delivery drone  (Source: Biz Journals)
Amp Electric Vehicles hopes its fleet of electric trucks can be a mobile launching pad to launch and land drones used for deliveries

Founded in 2007 Amp Holdings' subsidiary Amp Electric Vehicles has quickly made a name for itself securing thousands of orders to do aftermarket electrification of trucks and SUVs, including the Mercedes-Benz ML350 and Jeep Grand Cherokee.

But the company surprised even its supporters when it announced that it was also committing to an effort in an entirely new direction -- drone delivery.  Amp EVs' solution is a unique two-tiered scheme, which uses EV delivery trucks like landbound aircraft carriers on wheels to get the drone close to the customer.  The drone carries small packages on a second leg.

If it sounds like this is a competitor to Amazon's drone delivery project, that's because it is.  And company CEO Steve Burns isn't shy about laying his cards on the table, saying in a statement to Fleet Owner:

[Amazon’s] model, with a centralized warehouse and drones flying out of that, we don’t think that will work because of the [battery] weight needed [to fly distances].  This is really a mobile warehouse.  In the end, these things are electric, so the battery is key.  Most of what is out there is 'hobby grade,' what we're building is commercial grade.

The first key to building an Amazon rival was the purchase of the Workhorse brand in late 2012.  Workhorse paid Navistar to $5M to scoop up the Workhorse truck factory, brand, patents, and designs, including the Workhorse W42 delivery truck.

Workhorse

Workhorse's roots trace back to 1998 when GM decided to scrap the popular P-series Stepvan chassis.  Seeing opportunity a set of independent investors bought rights to the delivery vans and struck out on their own.  In 2005 things appeared to be looking up for Workhorse as it was purchased by Navistar.  But in mid-2012 Navistar decided to shutter its Union City, Ind. plant and lay off the unit's staff.  That's when Amp EVs stepped in with its bold plan to revive the brand.

Since the acquisition, Amp EVs has embraced its role as a vehicle manufacturer, offering up electrified variants of Workhorse's delivery trucks under the brand -- designs that are effectively grandchildren of the GM P-series platform.  The Workhorse E-100 is being targeted for the drone delivery fleet.

The Workhorse E-100 could be used to launch drones while out in the field
[Image Source: Amp Holdings]

Next the company needed a UAV.

After completing inital design work on a octacopter named "HorseFly" (which rides on the Workhorse, get it?), Amp EVs teamed up with the University of Cincinnati's Department of Aerospace Engineering and Engineering Mechanics and the University of Cincinnati Research Institute (UCRI) to perfect the UAV.  UC students and faculty helped Amp design an ample battery for the device and tune its aerodynamic response.

Now with finished HorseFly UAVs and a planned fleet of trucks in production, Amp believes its solution is ready for real world commercial work.

Horsefly
UC student Wei Wei is seen testing the HorseFly UAV on campus in mid-2014.
[Image Source: Kelly Cohen]

The drone-on-truck synergy goes well beyond a simple speed boost.  Since the Workhorse is an electric trucks it can double as a charging site, using its large battery to feed the HorseFly between trips.  And with plans for a mass deployment of delivery trucks throughout a given geographic region, each drone will have multiple locations to stop and recharge in between deliveries.

The Horsefly can recharge while sitting on roof of the vehicle, and a package can be attached via a portal system connected to the drone.  Once a package is attached, it will scan the package’s barcode to determine physical address, and then depart.  The drone is piloted to its destination by a human operator at the company's logistics center.

One key limitation is package size.  Currently the HorseFly can only carry loads up to around 4.5 kg (10 lb).  Still that's roughly twice the carrying capacity of Amazon's drones.

The Amp HorseFly drone could be used to deliver packages up to 10 pounds
[Image Source: Amp Holdings]

The next step will be to obtain regulatory approval from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)

The FAA ignored commercial drone use requests a little too long and was recently ordered by a federal court to stop stalling progress.  Subsequently the FAA issued a rather strict set of commercial drone guidelines for small drones weighing up to 55 pounds (~25 kg).  The guidelines state that commercial drones cannot travel faster than 100 mph and must fly no higher than 500 feet.  Commercial drones must be flown during the daytime only in good weather, while also never leaving visual line of sight (LoS) of the operator.

The latter demand is perhaps the thorniest as it's the only real thing standing in the way of approval of the HorseFly solution for commercial use.  AMP is reportedly working directly with the FAA on the issue and reports that it has received positive initial feedback from the agency.

FAA
The FAA has dragged its feet on commercial drone use. [Image Source: Kezi.com]

Both the Amazon drone and HorseFly share the LoS obstacle as both are remotely operated.  However, the Amazon flier is also likely to find itself at odds with the height requirement.  The HorseFly, on the other hand, flies a bit slower and lower to the ground.  Hence Amp believes it has a prime opportunity to get its drone to market first.

Whether the FAA will cooperate remains to be seen, but it seems like with companies like Google, Facebook, and Amazon working on drone delivery technologies, approval is bound to happen sometime in the future.  The challenge ahead will be for companies, delivery services, and the FAA to find common ground in order to create a safe, structured set of regulations for this new market.

Sources: Popular Science, Amp Electric Vehicles, UC [press release]





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