Study finds drones greener than trucks for deliveries of small packages

New research shows that delivery drones can lessen the burden on the environment and deliver certain packages faster than trucks, which are responsible for about 20 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. As you’d expect, there are a few caveats though.

Delivery drones can help reduce emissions

“Drones can make a significant impact on emissions, especially now that transport is the biggest polluting sector out there,” said Joshuah Stolaroff, an environmental scientist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory to The Guardian. “That last mile of getting goods to a destination is a big part of the emissions picture. There are plenty of plausible scenarios where drones can do environmental good.”

Stolaroff and his team of researchers have spent three years studying the environmental impact of delivery drone vs. diesel-powered trucks. In their study, which was published in Nature Communications, they found that battery-powered delivery drones (quadcopters) with an average 2.5-mile action radius consumed less energy per package, per mile than traditional trucks.

Restrictions and caveats

However, there are some restrictions and caveats. First, due to their limited range, drones require extra warehouse support. Second, larger packages are far less suitable for drones for obvious reasons.

“A drone would be a good option to deliver an iPhone or a pair of sunglasses. A bag of groceries or a computer monitor? Probably not,” said Stolaroff. “A larger drone may not be a win for the environment.”

And, lastly, the benefit of delivery drones for the environment is largely dependent on how the electricity was generated in the first place. Clean energy makes for cleaner drones.

DroneDJ’s take

The preferred method in our view would be to use clean energy (solar or wind for instance) to charge the battery-powered delivery drones. Then to use these drones in situations where they add the most benefit, i.e. small packages with high monetary value or time value (for instance blood deliveries or medication) for delivery routes that would face severe restrictions for normal transportation, i.e. congested cities or remote rural areas.

A good example is Zipline, a drone delivery company in Rwanda that has been successfully delivering blood and medication to smaller clinics in hard to reach areas. The more lax regulation and less densely populated areas in Rwanda make it an almost ideal drone delivery environment.

Drone Delivery Canada Corp. is trying to launch a similar service in Canada and has just received federal approval to fly their drones beyond line-of-sight, which is a major step in making drone deliveries a reality.

For most big cities, safety is a big concern when it comes to drone deliveries. You have a lot of people on the ground and a lot of manned air traffic to deal with as well. To make drone deliveries a reality in cities like London or New York, there are still plenty of hurdles that we will need to overcome. Earlier today, we reported that the London Assembly Transport Committee had warned that the city of London is not ready to accept drone deliveries as of yet.

What do you think about drone deliveries? Let us know in the comments below.

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