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Do Delivery Drones Help Save the Earth?

Do Delivery Drones Help Save the Earth?

Are you one of the world’s 2 billion online shoppers? While e-commerce has become a game-changer in the retail world, lots of resources are required to deliver Amazon boxes to your doorstep. Studies show that transportation makes up one-fifth of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. Some environmental experts have suggested that delivery drones could save the planet.

Amazon, Google’s parent company Alphabet, DHL, and the United Postal Service (UPS) have all recently taken steps to reduce future greenhouse emissions through unpiloted aircraft. 

This includes Amazon’s green initiative to make half its shipments net-zero carbon emissions by 2030 through its Prime Air delivery drone. Recent studies show that drones could be more eco-friendly than delivery trucks, but there are some caveats.

Drones in the 21st Century

Today’s tech innovations such as self-driving cars, robot vacuums, and video chat might seem like objects in a 1960s Jetsons cartoon. However, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) or “drones” provide some of the most potentials for improving people’s everyday lives.

While drones were originally military tools, today they’re also available to civilians and generate over $2.4 billion in global revenue, according to Statista. There are also over one million unpiloted aircraft registered in the USA alone.  

Delivery Drones and Climate Change

The idea of unmanned aircraft delivering Amazon or UPS orders to customers’ homes or workplaces sounds like an innovative idea. However, like reviewing new recycling statistics, it’s important to learn the facts about how much they could reverse carbon emissions versus semi-truck shipping, for example.  

Transportation Pollution: It’s Complicated

A recent study by the Federal Highway Administration notes that transportation pollution includes a wide range of areas. Among the main options of the highway, rail, and air, air transportation has the smallest demand, the environmental effects also produce the smallest environmental effect.

Here’s why. The nitrogen oxides (Nox) that airplanes emit are released at ultra-high altitudes in the atmosphere.  

Pizza, Payloads, and Batteries

Based on air delivery being more eco-friendly than it seems, how can drones be innovative as green delivery? One of the key features of the mini aircraft is they’d initially be used for making short-distance deliveries.

In fact, the pizza industry is also conducting research about pizza delivery drones. The main takeaway is drones can reduce the exhaust now produced by large delivery trucks.

Drones would also be used initially for small deliveries due to the small payloads. This includes applications like emergency supplies. As time passes, drones will have the ability to transport bigger loads over longer distances.  

Another way drones can help to slow down climate change is through rechargeable batteries. This eliminates the use of fossil fuels through diesel-powered trucks and vans, for example. Using green energy to juice up the flying machines could help to exponentially reduce the total carbon footprint the unmanned aircraft produce.

Energy Efficiency of Electric Trucks vs Drones

A 2018 study that included the University of Colorado-Boulder and Carnegie Mellon University showed that in some situations, delivery options like e-trucks can actually be a more energy-efficient delivery option versus drones. Today, transportation is the second-highest producer of US carbon emissions. Diesel trucks and especially big rigs are usually less eco-friendly versus drones based on their use of “dirty” fuels.

However, in recent years some automakers like Volvo, Tesla, and Nikola have been developing and testing electric semi-trucks. This could reduce the 415 million metric tons of CO2 emissions that medium and heavy-duty trucks produce in the US yearly.

UAV Energy

Today’s popular UAVs include “quadcopter” and “octocopter” models. The amount of energy they use is based on factors including the drone’s weight, cargo weight, and batteries. There are other factors, including the drone’s speed and wind conditions.

There’s no question that electric drones produce significantly less energy versus large delivery trucks powered by diesel fuel. However, it’s about more than diesel versus electricity. For example, the freight trucks can carry several packages instead of one. Another factor is various energy sources can power 18-wheelers, including:

  • Diesel
  • Gasoline
  • Natural gas
  • Electricity

Efficiency Deficiency?

Drones’ energy efficiency is an X-factor based on various factors. For example, energy could be saved by making multiple deliveries during a delivery flight. In addition, Amazon is testing the use of small local warehouses that would be within the Prime Air drones’ range.

The Final Verdict 

After the universities and non-profit research institute SRI International finished their number-crunching, researchers discovered that small drone delivery can be more eco-friendly than delivery trucks.  

However, how “green” the deliveries would be are based on factors like which state the delivery is taking place in. For example, small drone deliveries of about 0.5 kilograms would produce 50% less greenhouse gas emissions than trucks in California. Meanwhile, CO2 emissions would only be about one-quarter less in Missouri. This is related to how carbon-intensive each state’s electric grid is.     

Bigger, Not Better

The 2018 study published in Nature Communications found that the environmental benefits of large drones over delivery trucks were less clear. Deliveries of 8kg only produced nearly 10% fewer carbon emissions in California, for example.

Due to the extra fuel required for warehouse trips, electric semis or electric vans are probably better options for large deliveries. The need for warehousing is a major factor that can make drones less energy-efficient due to multiple back-and-forth trips required even when making small deliveries.

A drone delivery service would require warehouses to be spaced out more due to this factor. This would shorten warehouse-to-warehouse and warehouse-to-home trips. The factor would reduce how eco-friendly drones would be versus delivery trucks.

Starting Small

The study concluded that in most cases, small package delivery by small drones was more eco-friendly than ground-based delivery. The key is for the aircraft and warehouses to be small.

Another factor is that as electric semi-trucks like Tesla’s model become more energy-efficient, in some situations such e-trucks will become practical options for ground delivery, according to Forbes. One reason is that large copters and heavier packages will reduce the energy efficiency of drone deliveries. This, in turn, reduces the green benefits of reducing the total cargo of truck delivery.

Another factor is that countries like the United States are still in the process of regulating delivery drones. However, the process might speed up if environmentalists are willing to roll out small-scale drone deliveries.

Conclusion

Today drone delivery isn’t just something that you might see in a 1950s sci-fi movie. Many modern companies would be willing to invest in this option if it’s more efficient, economical, and eco-friendly than delivery trucks.

Is it easy being green? Some industry experts explain that businesses will want to verify that deliveries by unmanned aircraft are worth the risk and expense involved. Today about 55% of American companies have formal green programs. This makes sustainability one of the biggest possible perks of electric drones over diesel trucks.   

About the author:
Lillian Connors
is a Senior Content Developer at ACT-ENVIRO, with years of experience in developing content. Lillian Connors is a Senior Content Developer at ACT-ENVIRO, with years of experience in developing content. Throughout her career, she always looked for ways to contribute to the environment in recycling efforts, while providing valuable information with her written articles. She’s deeply into green practices, cherishing the notion that sustainability not only makes us far less dependent on others regarding how we live and do business but also contributes to our planet being a better place to live on. When she is not trying to improve the things around her (and herself, for that matter), she likes to lose herself in a good book and sip on an occasional appletini.

Submitted Exclusively to CrystalWind.ca  by Lillian Connors © 2021 crystalwind.ca


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