Drone delivery

Drones outperform trucks for eco-friendly short-haul deliveries

Image credit: Dreamstime

A University of Washington study has found that delivering packages with drones could reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions in certain circumstances compared with traditional truck deliveries.

As early as 2013, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos announced that the company was planning to test drone delivery for orders. Since then, public interest in non-military drones has increased as their utility has been proven. Delivery drones are often used to transport medical resources and samples in remote and less-developed regions of the world, and the US Federal Aviation Administration recently assigned airspace for experimenting with drone deliveries.

While much discussion has been focused on issues of privacy, practicality and affordability, less attention has been paid to the environmental friendliness of drone deliveries.

The researchers decided to study the CO2 emissions of drones and trucks during 10 delivery scenarios in Los Angeles, in which the vehicles deliver a range of products to 50-500 recipients. While the trucks were able to carry many items at once, the drones were required to travel back to the depot between each delivery.

While drones have proved themselves useful in delivering small, light packages such as medicines, which do not require much additional energy to stay aloft, they are less capable of delivering heavy or bulky parcels.

“Flight is so much more energy-intensive; getting yourself airborne takes a huge amount of effort,” said Professor Anne Goodchild, director of the Supply Chain Transportation and Logistics Center at the University of Washington. “So I initially thought there was no way drones could compete with trucks or carbon dioxide emissions.

“In the end, I was amazed at how energy-efficient drones are in some contexts. Trucks compete better on heavier loads, but for really light packages, drones are awesome.”

While trucks have the environmental edge for long delivery routes with many stops, the researchers found that drones have CO2 emissions advantages over trucks for local delivery routes, or when a delivery route does not have many drop-off points.

According to Goodchild, drone delivery would be a practical and environmentally friendly option for short trips in sparsely populated communities, or in strictly controlled areas such as university campuses and military bases. A hybrid system in which trucks carry loads of parcels from a depot to be individually delivered to nearby locations is also feasible.

“Given what we found, probably the most realistic scenario is for drones doing the last leg of the delivery,” said Goodchild. “You’re probably not going to see these in downtown Seattle anytime soon. But maybe in a rural community with roads that are slow and hard for trucks to navigate and no air space or noise concerns.”

Goodchild also suggests that engineering work put into updating truck designs could be just as beneficial as work put into developing delivery drones.

“If we took the same amount of energy we’ve put into making drones light and efficient, applied that to trucks and got them on the street, we could do so much good for the transportation industry and the environment.”

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