The week before Christmas in the North Pole is undoubtedly busy. There’s the last minute gift manufacturing for all of those kids who’ve found their way off the naughty list. Elves are getting the sleigh tuned up. They are getting the reindeer fed extra helpings of hay and food.
Santa. He’s in his office. Maps spread across his desk top, folded and tucked into every spare nook and extra cranny. He’s hand drawn routes all over the world. Here then there to maximize his time.
Delivering gifts to every house in the world in one night is a bit of a logistics challenge. It’s not something you do without a lot of planning. But what would go into that planning? And, realistically, how many Santas would be needed to actually pull off the feat?
To answer that question, we talked with three Omnitracs software engineers who develop the algorithms that power our Roadnet routing and navigation software for their take. We also asked Art Kutsy, Matt Burroughs and Chad Flanders what it would take to pull off the feat if the if the whole thing were done by truck.
For practical purposes, we limited our conversation to how Santa would go about planning to deliver packages to everyone in the contiguous United States. According to the most recent census, that’s gifts for approximately 315,000,000 people over roughly 160,820 square miles all done in one evening that includes 14 hours of darkness (5:30 sunset to 7:30 sunrise).
Here are some highlights of that conversations. For more, watch the video above.
If Santa and truck drivers were pitted against each other to see who could deliver gifts to each person in the contiguous United States, who would have it tougher? Santa or the truck drivers?
Matt: I think it's pretty obvious, there's one Santa and an army of truck drivers. He's got a lot of ground to cover. I'm voting Santa.
Art: Yeah, but there's lots of truck drivers, so you've got to figure out what each one of them is going to be delivering. One Santa, he's doing it all. He doesn't have to think about who's got what.
Matt: That's fair.
Chad: I think that the fact that Santa has three dimensional space to play with really works to his advantage because the crow flight, you can fly straight lines whereas we have to do it on the road networks and stuff. I think it's much harder to deal with all the trucking. He's got a lot of homes to go to so how can he get to all of them in time? This is why I think we have to have multiple Santas.
Matt: There's one Santa, Chad.
Chad: I speculate on multiple. Maybe Santa's helpers. The mall Santas?
Art: If there's only one Santa then there's no traffic, right? I'm pretty sure he flies below the plane space.
Matt: How fast does is this sleigh moving, like the speed of light? That's a lot of ground, and he has, like, 14 hours?
Art: He does. He can do it. I think he can do it.
If there were multiple Santas, what kind of outside factors would you have to consider in the planning of routes? Bed times? Time zones? Stuff like that?
Matt: I think the delivery method starts becoming really important. He doesn't have time to stop at every house and go down the chimney. We're talking present carpet bombing. There needs to be ...
Chad: Present carpet bombing...
Matt: That needs to factor.
Art: How does he get the cookies?
Chad: Ooh, interesting note.
Matt: Santa can only eat so many cookies. He can skip 99.9 percent of the cookies.
Chad: But he doesn’t. There’s always bites taken out of them.
Art: He seems to get all the cookies.
Chad: I think he needs to get in there. This is why I think the multiple Santas is a good idea. Each block, you base it on a time zone, you send out your Santas in waves as you get dark in different time zones.
Art: That makes a lot of sense.
Matt: How do you coordinate those Santas though?
Chad: Some help with elf air traffic controllers.
So if Santa were to plan this manually, where would he start?
Matt: Up in Maine, right? That's where the sun's going to be moving east to west.
Art: Yeah, he's got to hit the time zone every two or three hours … It's the winter so it's darker longer, so realistically he can get across the country and have about 15 hours to work with.
Matt: You probably would want to work through each time zone vertically and then switch over. You’d start on the east coast and go all the way down and then hit the next time zone and do that sort of thing. It gives you a few hours in each time zone.
Would he have to load the presents a certain way so that he factors in which ones go into the sleigh at the bottom versus the top?
Matt: That immediately brings into question, how large is this sleigh? Is this a bag of infinite holding type thing for these gifts or does he have to keep resupplying? Does Santa have resupply centers? This is the North Pole, but ...
Or multiple trailers?
Chad: Yeah, multiple trailers. That would be nice, but that's not classically how he does things. I think he's got a bag of infinite holding. I don't know.
Compare this what it’d be like for the truck driver trying to plan for the same deliveries.
Art: Traffic is the big problem. Traffic and road networks. The crow flies, the Santa flies, the way of getting from house to house is pretty simple, but the street network is a complex problem. There'll be time windows and height/weight restrictions on the roads, all things that Santa just doesn't have to think about.
Sounds like Santa's actually got it easy.
Art: I think so. Obviously, he's got more places to go to and more things to deliver, but that just adds time, not complexity, to the problem. I would love to write Santa’s algorithm.
While Santa certainly has plenty of things to consider in his route plan, he has it easy compared to the average truck driver. Omnitracs’ Roadnet routing software may not specifically factor in reindeer, time to eat cookies, or the bedtimes of children, but it does factor in business constraints such as customer time windows, truck type and size, open/close times, and many others. Ultimately, Santa has Christmas magic. Truck drivers have Omnitracs Roadnet tools.
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