New research shows that using drones for delivery services could reduce greenhouse gas emissions and energy use in the transport sector – if they are used right.
The use of drones in commercial package delivery is a growing industry, with several prominent companies like Amazon, Google, UPS and Deutsche Post DHL developing programmes for package delivery using drones.
A group of U.S. researchers set out to investigate if drone delivery is friendly for the environment or whether, like conventional overnight package delivery, it leads to much higher energy use and carbon emissions.
According to the researchers, the current practical range of multi-copter drones is about 4 kilometres, which means that a new network of urban warehouses or way stations would be needed to support a drone delivery system.
So while drones consume less energy per package-kilometre than delivery trucks, the additional warehouse energy required and the longer distances travelled by drone per package greatly increases their environmental impact.
But the research also showed that the best choice depends on a range of factors, including the size of the drone, the weight of the package, and the types of power plants on the regional electricity grid. For instance, drones are favoured in regions with relatively clean electricity, like California.
“A light package – say, a pair of sunglasses – flown by a small drone over a few miles, saves a lot of energy and greenhouse gas emissions compared to a delivery truck. But a larger package – say, a computer monitor – flown by a drone large enough to carry it, probably does worse than a delivery truck,” said Joshua Stolaroff, a scientist from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) and lead author of the paper.
There are even ways to make larger drones more efficient that trucks and vans.
“Charging drones only with renewable and low-carbon electricity would be the easiest way. They also might find creative ways to deliver goods from existing retail stores rather than building additional warehouses. The bottom line is to pay attention to life-cycle impacts when designing both the drone and logistics network.”
The researchers recommend that regulators and companies looking to get an environmental benefit from drones should consider the system-wide impacts and focus their efforts on small packages, with larger packages being left for trucks and vans.
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