U.S. Postal ServiceThe United States Postal Service is looking for candidates to replace the current generation of delivery trucks. The Grumman Long Life Vehicle went into service in 1987, and has outlived its original intended lifespan of 24 years. The USPS has named five finalists for the new contract, and Workhorse, along with its partner VT Hackney, is one of those few. In early October, Trucks.com posted photos of what it claimed to be Workhorse's candidate delivering mail. We asked Steve Burns about them. He was reluctant to say much, though, saying he'd been reprimanded already for doing so.
"The Post Office has all five companies really on a strong gag order, so [we're] just not allowed to talk about it," Burns told us. They are on public roads delivering mail, so things like the Trucks.com people are going to walk out to their mailbox and take an Instagram and say, 'Look, what the heck is that?' So I think it'll start to migrate more into the public eye, but we are not allowed to say anything, unfortunately."
He did offer up that Workhorse is supplying the chassis, including the powertrain, and that VT Hackney would supply the body. "We didn't have a body solution at the time, and it was a good partnership," Burns said.
SureFlyThe SureFly is the hybrid-powered personal flying machine Workhorse is developing. "That one I can talk about," said Burns, though it's a bit harder for people to grasp. "We don't have to explain what a pickup truck is," said Burns, "but we just say we're making it better, and everybody can kind of understand that quickly. But the SureFly's a new category. There are no personal flying electric machines. So it takes a little more education, but, intuitively, everybody's wanted to just fly above traffic and go to work in their own little flying machine. From that point of view, everybody gets it very quickly."
The SureFly is a two-person (or one person with cargo) manned helicopter with eight rotors, each powered by its own electric motor. It is meant for short flights, with about 70 miles of range. A gasoline generator supplies the power to the motors, and two lithium-ion battery packs act as backup, providing five minutes of time to land after it's out of gas. It's small enough to fit in a garage, thanks to its folding arms. Workhorse intends for the price to be about $200,000 or less.
"At first glance, it may seem like a diversion," said Burns. "We're busy enough with the pickup truck and all the trucks we build." But to hear Burns explain why Workhorse is building the SureFly, it begins to make more sense.
Workhorse already has the HorseFly package delivery drone (more on that in a bit), which has been in development for years. "It can carry 10 pounds, so it has kind of a load underneath it, and we had a customer that wanted a big one to carry more weight. As we built it up we discovered, well, we could build a personal flying machine here."
Burns thinks Workhorse is well suited to the task, too. "It's our skill set. It's batteries. Batteries are the key. It's a hybrid, which most of our trucks are. It's motor control, it's rare earth lightweight magnetic motors. And we've learned to fly with the HorseFly drone, so it's all the skill sets we have. It's carbon fiber, which most of the vehicles we're making these days have carbon fiber in them somewhere. We didn't have to go out and get a whole new team. We built it with the existing team."
It began as a request from a logistics customer who wanted something that could carry 60 pounds of cargo, which is more than the 55-pound limit the FAA allows for unmanned drones. "The reason it's piloted is it's just much easier to get FAA approval than an autonomous vehicle," said Burns. "You can imagine how long it's going to take to get an autonomous helicopter approved."
But who's going to buy it? "So far, it's individuals," Burns said.
Workhorse is planning a demonstration flight later this year. "I think when folks see that, they'll be able to really grasp what it is and what they could use it for," said Burns. "It could be a farmer who's using it for precision agriculture. It could be emergency responders. You should be able to get there before any ambulance. It could be military. It could be just commuters. It could be air taxis like Uber's trying to set up."
In addition to being more affordable, the SureFly has other advantages of a standard helicopter. "The reason we think everybody doesn't have a small helicopter in their garage is safety. Conventional helicopters are difficult to fly, to learn to fly. They have a lot of single points of failure. If one thing breaks, then it's going to be a bad day." Multiple rotors, battery backup, and a ballistic parachute provide far more redundant safety than a Jesus nut.
Plus, it's easy to pilot. "You fly it with a joystick and an up/down button," Burns told us. "Basically, if you can fly a drone, you can fly this." Workhorse is currently working with the FAA to get it certified as a Light Sport Aircraft, the license for which requires 20 hours of flight time, as opposed to 1,500 hours required to fly a regular helicopter.
Burns says Workhorse has been surprised by the amount of interest in the SureFly, considering he doesn't think it'll get FAA approval until 2019.
HorseFlyEarlier this year, Workhorse demonstrated its HorseFly delivery drone, which launches from the roof of a vehicle (in that case, a UPS truck) to take the package to its final destination. Steve Burns said that the reason drones aren't already delivering packages is because the FAA requires a person to maintain line-of-sight with the flying robot. That makes it seem impractical for most use cases, but Workhorse has identified rural and suburban areas as places where the HorseFly can have an advantage. If that's surprising to you, you're not alone, but there are good reasons why they're better suited to those locales than urban ones.
For one, the lower population density and lack of tall buildings makes it easier to keep an eye on the drone. "It launches from atop a truck, and so you have somebody in the vicinity, and line of sight is, let's say maybe a mile, mile and a half, which can jump you over a farm," Burns said. "You don't want to have to drive to this farm. You can just jump over there. It can jump you over a neighborhood. Literally, though, you could pull up, be delivering to one house, and give it to the drone, and let it go four houses down and deliver and get back probably by the time you get back."
Rural areas are a "double win," said Burns. "The FAA likes it because there's not many people on the ground underneath the drone. And then the delivery companies like it because rural delivery is the most expensive per package because of the long distances between."
As with all logistics, efficiency is key. "A big part of the cost of delivering last-mile packages is driver time, and it's much more than gasoline or maintenance. So the drone is to help reduce driver time, and make them more efficient. It's just remarkable what a mile or a mile and a half — lots of those little jumps — can save you in a day."
AutomationWhen we asked Burns if Workhorse is working on automation for its vehicles, he said, "Oh yeah. Of course. You can't be a vehicle maker without looking at that." He said Workhorse is putting as much autonomous driving hardware into its trucks as it can, so they're easy to retrofit in the future.
"The new trucks next year are going to have automatic braking," he said. "You might see that on luxury cars right now, where it brakes for you. We're going to have that in these big delivery trucks, because these trucks are large. If they hit somebody, it's not good. So it's not full autonomous, but we think it's really going to be an important safety innovation. Normally trucks lag very, very far behind automotive, so we're trying to bring them up on par with automotive."
Clearly, Workhorse has its work cut out for it. "So you're working on the W-15, you have electric trucks, you've got the SureFly, the HorseFly, the Post Office, UPS," we said to Burns. "Is there anything else that you're working on?"
"No," he replied, laughing. "Nope, that's it."