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Transportation Robotics

Delivery Drones: More Feasible If They Come By Truck 129

malachiorion writes Amazon's drone delivery service was never going to work. It was too autonomous, and simply too risky to be approved by the FAA in the timeframe that Jeff Bezos specified (as early as this year). And yet, the media is still hung up on Amazon, and much of the coverage of the FAA's newly released drone rules center around Prime Air, a program that was essentially a PR stunt. Meanwhile, a Cincinnati-based company that makes electric delivery trucks has an idea that's been largely ignored, but that's much more feasible. The Horsefly launches from and returns to a delivery truck once it reaches a given neighborhood, with a mix of autonomous flight to destination, driver-specified drop-off locations, and remote-piloted landings. The company will still need to secure exemptions from the FAA, but unlike Amazon, they at least have a chance. There's more detail about Amp's technically impressive (and seemingly damn tough) drone in my story for Popular Science.
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Delivery Drones: More Feasible If They Come By Truck

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  • by Anonymous Coward

    People like magic

  • More important, they can continue to function even in snowstorms, albeit at a slower pace because the drones won't be usable.
    • Here are the FACTS (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Frosty Piss ( 770223 ) * on Thursday February 19, 2015 @01:29PM (#49089213)

      Amazon's drone delivery service was never going to work...

      Amazon's "drone delivery" was never a serious project, other than for PR to keep Amazon in the headlines.

      • I'm of two minds on this.

        One the one hand, being a pragmatic engineer and business strategist, I agree with you. Amazon's drone project would never really work.

        On the other hand, I really WANT it to work. And, historically speaking, whenever radical disruptive change happened there were people who always said "that will never work", backed up by plenty of sound reasoning and scientific fact.

        Yeah, sure, say what you will about how smart you are. I'm just saying.....disruptive technologies tend to either a

        • by ShanghaiBill ( 739463 ) on Thursday February 19, 2015 @02:21PM (#49089733)

          lots of naysayers

          Always remember that Slashdot has lots and lots of cynical naysayers, they are disproportionately modded up, and they are nearly always wrong about anything that has a "social" aspect. Here are some consensus predictions from Slashdot:

          1. Smart phones are stupid, and will never catch on. They are a solution looking for a problem.
          2. Tablets are even stupider, and will definitely fail, because you can't write code on a tablet.
          3. Facebook will be out of business by 2008.
          4. Nobody will use "the cloud" because any home user can build their own triple-redundant RAID storage system, and battery backed whole-house conditioned power.

          • Also Slashdot has some crazy smart people posting, but that intellect is very domain specific and tinted by an insanely high level of naive, unrealistic libertarianism.

            Correct for that, and you're golden.

          • by Anonymous Coward

            5. And when something we thought would never catch on does, it's because that thing was "forced down our throats", not because we were wrong about it.

          • You can add my prediction to that list: The iWatch is going to be a dud.
          • by Rob Riggs ( 6418 )

            Add my cynical prediction to the list:

            • Driverless cars will put suicide bombers out of work.
          • Here are some consensus predictions from Slashdot:

            1. Smart phones are stupid, and will never catch on. They are a solution looking for a problem. 2. Tablets are even stupider, and will definitely fail, because you can't write code on a tablet. 3. Facebook will be out of business by 2008. 4. Nobody will use "the cloud" because any home user can build their own triple-redundant RAID storage system, and battery backed whole-house conditioned power.

            5. Socialized medicine will lower costs and result in better care.

            (Oops; did I say something true and genuinely subversive again? Quick, mod me down!)

          • lots of naysayers

            Always remember that Slashdot has lots and lots of cynical naysayers, they are disproportionately modded up, and they are nearly always wrong about anything that has a "social" aspect. Here are some consensus predictions from Slashdot:

            1. Smart phones are stupid, and will never catch on. They are a solution looking for a problem.
            2. Tablets are even stupider, and will definitely fail, because you can't write code on a tablet.
            3. Facebook will be out of business by 2008.
            4. Nobody will use "the cloud" because any home user can build their own triple-redundant RAID storage system, and battery backed whole-house conditioned power.

            So, I like your implied conclusion. Do the opposite to what Slashdot recommends. Actually, for the above, slashdot caused the price of shares to drop to where the smart one purchased them at a bargain. I was the one of the smart-ones, but I did not have enough money to make a difference in my life.

        • by Quirkz ( 1206400 )

          On the other hand, I really WANT it to work. And, historically speaking, whenever radical disruptive change happened there were people who always said "that will never work", backed up by plenty of sound reasoning and scientific fact.

          What I'd really like is a house built with pre-installed vacuum tubes, so that you can get immediate distributions from a central depot. That would be awesome.

  • How is this better than the driver getting out of the truck, walking up to your front door, and putting the parcel down.
    Sure he wont get so cold (its nearly up to zero today)
    I still don't think drones would cope with bad weather that well (eg the east coast right now)

    • The thinking is that a truck could roll into a defined area with, say, a dozen small packages to deliver, and have drones fan out to several places at once (presumably, destinations that routinely take such deliveries, and are well suited to it). That's a driver/truck magnifier.

      I can see some businesses installing what amounts to a drone delivery doggie-door/coal-chute on their roof tops, possibly with coded locks, that allow stuff to be dropped off with a straight shot down to a mail room or catch bin i
      • I can see some businesses installing what amounts to a drone delivery doggie-door/coal-chute on their roof tops, possibly with coded locks, that allow stuff to be dropped off with a straight shot down to a mail room or catch bin in a loading dock area.

        I could see somebody putting a net over the opening and taffing all the stuff.

        Now I'm an honest person, so I'd never do that. But I might drop a bag full of turds down it.

        During a holiday weekend.

        • Most high-end apartments and office buildings (the sort of places where you'd find enough clients to make this sort of delivery interesting) don't have their rooftops (or, their entire rooftops) open to the public. Otherwise you'd have the public messing with their HVAC, dishes, and everything else). And it should be trivial, using bluetooth or another close proximity protocol, to have the drone ring the doorbell with a pre-assigned key. I can see this being useful for document tubes being delivered (inste
    • by RingDev ( 879105 )

      I would assume that the goal would be to pull into a subdivision, park, and then let the drone(s) deliver a half dozen parcels to residence in that subdivision.

      Or identify packages that cannot be drone delivered (shape/size/weight), drive to those locations, and have drones launching/returning for the smaller packages while the driver is en route with the big stuff.

      -Rick

    • by Kjella ( 173770 )

      How is this better than the driver getting out of the truck, walking up to your front door, and putting the parcel down.

      Well from the description of autonomous mid-flight and dedicated landing crews it seems their main idea is delivering many packages while the truck is moving slowly through the area launching new deliveries coming into range as finished ones come in. I have my doubts about flying drones as the last mile delivery vehicle though, they'd probably do better with a small fleet of rolling drones travelling at under 10 km/h along pedestrian walkways - that will let you escape a lot of regulation around here, they

  • by RingDev ( 879105 ) on Thursday February 19, 2015 @01:12PM (#49089027) Homepage Journal

    From TFA:
    "A delivery truck costs roughly a dollar per mile with diesel."

    I have a 1997 F-250 that pulls a fully loaded 3-horse slant load goose neck trailer and even with amorting out the depreciation over mileage, including tires and maintenance, and obviously Diesel fuel, I'm no where's close to $1/mile.

    We don't put nearly as many miles on the truck as a delivery truck, so they are likely seeing higher maintenance costs, but with so many miles their amorted costs are going to be way lower per mile driven.

    If they're looking to save costs and they're currently spending $1/mile on their trucks, I think there are some low hanging fruit they could tackle before jumping to drones.

    -Rick

    • It's not just the number of miles, but also the stop-go-stop-go-stop-go nature of deliveries that kill fuel consumption and increase wear and tear too.

      • It's not just the number of miles, but also the stop-go-stop-go-stop-go nature of deliveries that kill fuel consumption and increase wear and tear too.

        ... and far more than any of that, are the wages paid to the driver. If the truck averages 30 mph, and the driver makes $30/hour wages+taxes+benefits, then that is $1 per mile.

        • by RingDev ( 879105 )

          Some fedex driver posted a 'day in the life of' blog and mentioned his 150+ mile daily route. Base salary of a fedex driver is ~$13/hr. Call it $20 as costs (tax/benies/sick/vacation/etc), that puts it at $160/day. Which is right about $1/mile.

          But here's the rub, the article claims that switching from a Diesel truck to an electric truck takes their operating expenses from $1/mile to $0.30/mile.

          If labor is already $1/mile, then they are either doing absolutely no maintenance and using no fuel on the Diesel a

    • $1 per mile covers not only the stop-go-stop-go fuel costs, but far increased wear and tear.

      Add to that the cost of the human that is driving (usually their highest paid non-management people), and now $1 a mile seems right.

      • by RingDev ( 879105 ) on Thursday February 19, 2015 @01:55PM (#49089461) Homepage Journal

        The full block from TFA:

        An electric truck is already a step up in efficiency and environmental responsibility from traditional internal combustion trucks, with a delivery cost to the shipping company of 30 cents per mile (compared to roughly a dollar per mile with diesel).

        they're claiming a 70% cost reduction by going to an electric truck. Same driver, same parcel load, same mileage, ect...

        Which would imply that their Diesel fuel + Diesel specific maintenance costs them 70 cents per mile MORE than their electricity and electric specific maintenance.

        If they can put that same driver in an electric vehicle and do the same deliveries for 30 cents a mile, I'm thinking that they are doing something really wrong with the Diesel vehicles.

        The big wear and tear that they will see over my horse truck is brakes. But even if you figure they drop $1000 on rotors, pads, and labor for brake jobs, every year, they're still putting probably 50k miles a year on those trucks. Which works out to be 2 cents per mile. And that's the hardest hit area.

        You could toss in the tranny (although it should be holding up for much more than a single year of stop and go). But even if they're only getting 1 year out of a tranny, and they drop $5k for a new tranny installed each year, that's still only 10 cents a mile.

        Suspension, power steering, tires, etc... would all be taking the same abuse whether you're in a Diesel or an electric.

        To be spending $0.70/mile on a vehicle putting down 50k+ miles a year, means spending over $35,000 a year on vehicle maintenance.

        To put that into scope, a Ford e-350 stripped chassis (your basic commercial delivery frame) MSRPs for $25,000. Jump up to an e-350 cutaway (your standard UHaul truck) for $30,000. Even if they blow $15k on a custom cab/body, you're still looking at a $40,000 vehicle. How the heck are they blowing over $35,000 a year maintaining a $40,000 vehicle?

        -Rick

        • An electric truck is already a step up in efficiency and environmental responsibility from traditional internal combustion trucks, with a delivery cost to the shipping company of 30 cents per mile (compared to roughly a dollar per mile with diesel).

          they're claiming a 70% cost reduction by going to an electric truck. Same driver, same parcel load, same mileage, ect...

          +1 informative.

          Which would imply that their Diesel fuel + Diesel specific maintenance costs them 70 cents per mile MORE than their electricity and electric specific maintenance.

          If they can put that same driver in an electric vehicle and do the same deliveries for 30 cents a mile, I'm thinking that they are doing something really wrong with the Diesel vehicles.

          Seems like they could just put a genset on the truck & use electric driven wheels and get a big cost reduction while still using diesel, if TFA is correct. I assume they're just burning a ton in the stop-start nature?

        • If they can put that same driver in an electric vehicle and do the same deliveries for 30 cents a mile, I'm thinking that they are doing something really wrong with the Diesel vehicles.

          Yeah, buying Mercedes

        • You could toss in the tranny (although it should be holding up for much more than a single year of stop and go). But even if they're only getting 1 year out of a tranny, and they drop $5k for a new tranny installed each year, that's still only 10 cents a mile.

          Have you checked backpage or craigslist recently? I think you could get a better deal on a tranny if you looked around a bit.

        • by N22YF ( 870358 )

          To be spending $0.70/mile on a vehicle putting down 50k+ miles a year, means spending over $35,000 a year on vehicle maintenance.

          Much of this cost will be energy cost. Electric powertrains are about three times as efficient as conventional combustion engine powertrains, and on top of that, electricity is cheaper per kilowatt-hour than gas or diesel. Regenerative braking, and not having to idle the engine, would improve the mileage as well.

        • Which would imply that their Diesel fuel + Diesel specific maintenance costs them 70 cents per mile MORE than their electricity and electric specific maintenance.

          I would believe it. I have heard that depreciation costs + maintenance costs + fuel will chew up around 50c / km on an average family sedan. Electric vehicles have a far more simple maintenance regime.

          The only thing I find hard to believe in all of this would be the cost of battery replacement. For a vehicle that is always on the road I expect you wear out the battery through constant charge / discharge cycles quickly so you would have quite a frequent battery replacement program. That however speaks agains

    • While I agree with people saying the whole drone thing was just a Bezos PR stunt, out of interest, wouldn't it be better to use a single rotor helicopter rather than an octocopter for these sorts of tasks? I remember reading how a lot of the energy in a multi-rotor is wasted accelerating and braking the motors to control pitch and attitude, and this leads to substantial conversion losses and the need to oversize everything. Surely at eight rotors, the cost of adding a swash plate control would be worth it f
      • by Shoten ( 260439 ) on Thursday February 19, 2015 @02:00PM (#49089503)

        While I agree with people saying the whole drone thing was just a Bezos PR stunt, out of interest, wouldn't it be better to use a single rotor helicopter rather than an octocopter for these sorts of tasks? I remember reading how a lot of the energy in a multi-rotor is wasted accelerating and braking the motors to control pitch and attitude, and this leads to substantial conversion losses and the need to oversize everything. Surely at eight rotors, the cost of adding a swash plate control would be worth it for the efficiency gains, especially in a commercial setting.

        Here's an experiment that will illustrate the answer for you.

        Buy a Parrot drone, and fly it. See how easy it is? It's very stable, and quite straightforward.

        Now, buy a small but decent (i.e., big enough that it could carry something like a GoPro) R/C helicopter. Try and take off; don't forget to wear eye protection. Tally up how many times you have to go back to the shop for new rotors and other parts, as you crash again and again. Or, in the alternative, just watch the Mythbusters episode where they take on the myth of a helicopter crashing because its rotor blades were destabilized with a little bit of tape, so you can watch them go through this exact process.

        And yes, it's technically possible to add technology to single-rotor design systems to automate the corrective actions to keep them stable. But by using an octocopter, you can do it a lot more cheaply and more easily.

        • by N22YF ( 870358 )

          And yes, it's technically possible to add technology to single-rotor design systems to automate the corrective actions to keep them stable. But by using an octocopter, you can do it a lot more cheaply and more easily.

          That's not true; multicopters are computer-stabilized by necessity - they are much harder to manually control than a conventional helicopter configuration. I don't believe it would be significantly more expensive or difficult to add computer stabilization to a conventional R/C helicopter. The main difference is that multicopters are much simpler mechanically, and multicopters with many rotors are more failure-tolerant (e.g., if you have 8 motors and one fails, you can still fly with control and stability on

          • With 8 a decent controller can keep it up in the air (at degraded wind resistance and maneuverability) when 3 are lost.

      • Surely at eight rotors, the cost of adding a swash plate control would be worth it for the efficiency gains, especially in a commercial setting.

        There are already quadcopter designs based around heli tail booms with reversible rotors, which are cheap. That's a nice middle ground which provides all the benefits you're looking for.

        A quadcopter can land with just two opposing rotors operating, which is a big win over a helicopter which only has one and can't fly without it — especially if you're flying it over people.

    • If they're looking to save costs and they're currently spending $1/mile on their trucks, I think there are some low hanging fruit they could tackle before jumping to drones.

      The problem with the $1/mile figure, even if it's correct, is that that's the cost of the truck per mile. The UPS trucks I've seen carry hundreds of packages. So on a per package basis, the cost is on the order of 1 cent/mile.

      That's not going to be the case for drones. Because of weight limitations, each package will need its own

    • What about the driver? Drones don't have those. Trucks may be cheap, but they're useless without a person to pick up each package and walk it to the door.

      I picture a hybrid of both: a truck can deliver heavy items and act as a pickup and recharge point for a number of drones dealing with the small ones. This way the number of drops for the driver is reduced and the drones' problem of range is side-stepped.

  • My FedEx and UPS delivery guys must be early adopters of this futuristic object conveyance methodology.

    • Your FedxEx and UPS guys are already using drones with truck-based mobile launchpads?

      Shit, my FedEx guy is still trying to figure out the "This Side Up" arrow on package.

      • Your FedxEx and UPS guys are already using drones with truck-based mobile launchpads?

        Nah, it's more like the "domestic parcel delivery catapult" judging by what most packages look like.

        No drones, just pure ballistic flight.

      • Both companies seem to have a penchant for holding packages. Previous package for UPS was delivered at 3 AM to my local facility. We don't get our UPS deliveries until after 12 noon.

        Apparently it's not possible to load a package at a hub on to a truck within five hours but instead takes over 24.

        Then there's my current FedEx delivery. Shipped on Monday, to be delivered on Wednesday.

        Nope, some excuse about them having problems at their sorting facility because of weather. Delivery now for Friday.

        I guess gov

        • by fnj ( 64210 )

          We don't get our UPS deliveries until after 12 noon.

          My UPS _never_ comes before 7pm. These guys drive a long, long route carrying a zillion packages to a zillion destinations. Did you suppose they call a driver, hand him one package, and tell him to hurry up and take it straight to your place?

  • Company spends $10,000 on delivery drone. Company dispatches done on it's first delivery run. Rogue actor uses $100 worth of equipment to jam all transmissions to/from the drone, removes power source, and steals it. Company is now out $10,000.

    Because they are unmanned, drones are simply far too easy to lose and far too easy to steal. They are impractical.

    • Delivery by truck was impractical at one point too. There's a solution to every problem. And because the truck won't be too far from the drone, you could probably find a way to detect jamming, which the FCC doesn't look to kindly upon.

      • by brunes69 ( 86786 )

        Detecting the position of jamming sources is not as easy as it is in the movies.

        And if you are trying to commit grand theft, I don't think you are worried about the FCC.

      • by zlives ( 2009072 )

        "FCC doesn't look to kindly upon"
        wasn't planning to show it a nipple.

        also "truck won't be too far from the drone" unless you arm it with HARM what good is that going to do?

    • Company spends $50,000 on delivery truck. Company dispatches truck on it's first delivery run. Rogue actor uses $5 worth of wrench to jam the driver's noggin, takes key, and steals it. Company is now out $50,000.

      Because they are manned, trucks are simply far too easy to lose and far too easy to steal. They are impractical.

      FTFY.

      1. This does happen (Google had plenty of examples)
      2. Rogue actor ends up with a huge volume of parcels that are easier to fence than a specialized machine

  • Waste of time (Score:5, Insightful)

    by BitZtream ( 692029 ) on Thursday February 19, 2015 @01:20PM (#49089103)

    I fly fully autonomous quads.

    This is another stupid idea.

    It will take longer to get into the neighborhood, setup for launch, launch, deliver, return, and manually recover than it will take your standard fedex/UPS guy to do his job.

    Oh, and its going to carry small objects and drop them in the front yard. Not under the car park or the stoop. Most objects will still need carried by a person large enough to carry them for more than 30 seconds and NO ONE is going to want their shit left out in the front yard or otherwise somewhere not leaning up against their home where its safe and dry.

    Again, this is another stupid idea. Perhaps people should actually try to implement their projects and compare them to the existing conventional method before starting a 'business' around the idea.

    Flying and fighting gravity constantly is expensive, thats why we currently all drive cars and not fly everywhere. Its not because we can't have a flying car, its because it'll cost more fuel just to get that flying car off the ground in the morning than it does for most people to drive to work and back. Flying ANYWHERE takes more time than driving when its less than about 100 miles due to the extra time consumed by taking off and landing SAFELY. Drones don't change that in any way, they just take the human flying out of it. The human flying a problem or a cost when you look at the other expenses. Well, and the human flying doesn't have a death wish, but thats not any different than a broken down drone that flys itself into a mountain.

    • I fly fully autonomous quads.

      Don't they fly themselves by definition? (jk)

      You have a good point about setup. Seems that they would need a programmed drop spot for each house. I suppose over time they would have the route & drop data for all repeat customers, but the time to setup time for each house would likely required more time to complete than the first few manual deliveries.

    • It will depend on the community and the volume.
      Say you have an area that is mostly densely packed. And you have 95 Small packages, and 5 large packages, with 10 drones. While you are hand delivering the big packages, the drones can be getting the small ones outs.
      If you have just a few packages, and the area isn't so dense, then you are better off hand delivering them.

    • It will take longer to get into the neighborhood, setup for launch, launch, deliver, return, and manually recover than it will take your standard fedex/UPS guy to do his job.

      It's going to start in the neighborhood, if it operates from truck. Set up for launch? That involves connecting the package. Launch? The drone does that. Deliver? That involves releasing the package once landed. Manually recover? If that even happens, which it won't since we already can make drones land on target, the drones will get close and make it easy.

      Oh, and its going to carry small objects and drop them in the front yard.

      Well, no. I'd have it drop off my packages in the back yard. I guess you could have them dropped off anywhere you like, but you're responsible for them o

  • by Jahoda ( 2715225 ) on Thursday February 19, 2015 @01:21PM (#49089107) Homepage
    So it's more efficient to park a truck at the entrance to a neighborhood, load a package onto a drone, fly that drone to the home, drop the package, fly back, load another package, then fly to the next house, etc etc repeat ad nauseum than it is to just drive the truck to each home and have a human carry a package up the front steps? I don't think so. If anything, the improvement would be self-driving trucks so that the driver could focus on package delivery, loading/unloading, etc.
    • How about automating the package delivery from truck to driver? I see the driver go back a get a package after he stops, that often takes as long longer than bringing it to my doorstep. If the truck pulled up the parcel for the driver as he approached the house, he could save quite a bit of time.
    • Have you seen garbage trucks ? The latest just have a driver that does not leave the truck. Same thing
  • by Nyder ( 754090 ) on Thursday February 19, 2015 @01:21PM (#49089123) Journal

    I live in an Apartment.

  • A truck? Really?

    Bloody amateurs.

    So, I propose one big giant drone. It will fly to the locale, and then unleash dozens of smaller drones.

    These drones, under the pretense of delivering packages (wink wink), will then scan all residences with FLIR, infrared, and every other technology, including tapping all communications.

    The marketing people will take all of that information and do what they need to, and the government will also be provided the information.

    Your signature for the package will have a rider on

  • How many drones will be lost to dogs?

    • Just drop a drone bone, and the dogs will leave the drone alone.
    • by 4pins ( 858270 )

      How many drones will be lost to dogs?

      That is a great idea! Where can I get an anti-drone dog?

      It won't be delivered by a drone, right?

  • Relative to the few who will own everything and actually be able to buy stuff. Isn't that the plan?
  • Its purely a ploy to up stock price, look innovative, and have competitors spend money with RnD on crap that use not useful.
    Price per pound is still, ship, rail, then truck.
    Unless your delivering something like a paper clip at $10 a piece, there is no profit in this, at this time.
    I'm more curious if their "robot lifter distribution centers" are turning a profit yet.
  • The imagined benefit of the drones was that some people who didn't care at all about costs but wanted intimidate gratification (and who lived near an Amazon warehouse) would supposedly pay an outrageous fee to get their little order delivered quickly by drone. Quickly meaning in the next few hours, and definitely today. You can already pay an exorbitant fee for next day delivery if your a rich prick who thinks that they need their Amazon toy tomorrow rather than today. It would be pointless to pay more for

  • There are subsonic, 6mm BB guns that fire 3x normal mass rounds with CO2 that are a solid lead projectile with neon tracer marks on the back where the barrel has a functional silencer as well. They're about $90-150. You could silently take out a drone and grab its package very, very quickly and easily. That or fishing line net traps that no optics or radar can easily detect. It's like shooting fish in a barrel but easier. This is never going to work.
  • If this were to be approved, the first time a drone hits a kid in the head and rips out his eye, the company will be sued out of existence.
  • This is a boon for thieves. They just have to follow the trucks and canvas the immediate neighborhood rather than try to follow them from a distribution center.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    It's just a coincidence that Amazon's Prime Air story (more accurately infomercial) was shown on "60 Minutes" literally the evening before Cyber Monday in 2014, right? In my opinion that shows just how corrupt both Amazon and CBS's "60 Minutes" really are. News == advertisements. Advertisements == news.

  • A visiting professor working on the scheduling algorithms for the Horsefly and other semi-autonomous systems gave a talk on the challenges with things of this nature. The bottom line about Horsefly specifically is that, even though it seems like a good solution and the scheduling algorithm might find an optimal solution for delivering small parcels, the Horsefly a) has not yet landed on a moving truck, b) sometimes requires the truck sit and wait for it to return, wasting time and fuel, and c) has a very l

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