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Drone Deliveries May Be Closer Than We Think

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One new idea pairs drones with trucks, with would save delivery companies time and fuel.

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Everyone knows that Amazon (NASDAQ:AMZN), the retailer that sells, well, everything, hopes to soon make at least some of its deliveries with flying drones dispatched from warehouses.

That's still a couple of years away, so the delivery truck is still king.

AMP Electric Vehicles in Loveland, OH, is working on bringing the two together. With a team of researchers at the University of Cincinnati, the company is trying to develop an electric delivery van that can carry "octocopters" -- nicknamed HorseFlies -- which are electrically powered, eight-rotor drone helicopters. 

The idea is that a delivery truck cruising along its normal route usually has a few stops to make that are out of the way and not near any others. Instead of burning enough fuel to power a 10-ton van a few extra miles to drop off a lightweight package, the driver could stay on his main route and send the drone to drop off the package.

UPS (NYSE:UPS) already has found that little changes in routes can save a lot of money. Over the past decade, its drivers have been trained to avoid left turns, a practice that the company estimates already has saved it about 10 million gallons of gasoline. AMP says its solution also could save enough time and gasoline to spark the interest of companies like Amazon and FedEx (NYSE:FDX).

Steve Burns, the co-founder and CEO of AMP, says his company already makes an electric delivery van called the Workhorse. After hearing of Amazon's plan to use flying drones for some deliveries, he began working with researchers at the University of Cincinnati to begin developing the HorseFly.

What's key, Burns says, is pairing the drones with the trucks. Conventionally, delivery trucks hold enough packages to cover a driver's route. The route is designed to ensure no waste of time or energy. Amazon's idea is to send package-carrying drones from warehouses. But to match a truck's capacity, a warehouse-based drone would have to make up to 150 round trips a day, and that's not efficient.

Launching the HorseFlies from a truck already near the customer makes much more economic sense, according to AMP's Dan Zito. "That makes it unique," he says.

This article was written by Andy Tully of Oilprice.com.
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