We’ve heard about Amazon’s mission to revamp their package delivery service with the aid of drones for years. Reducing the needs for trucking by delivering certain packages with unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) would save fuel—and carbon emissions, as a result. Aerial delivery drones could potentially release less of the gases that lead to climate change like carbon dioxide. But how much could drone deliveries help?
The Rise of Drone Delivery
The China-based retailer, JD.com, has already launched drone delivery in four provinces in the country, while DHL and Zipline are currently using drones to deliver medicine to rural and hard-to-reach areas. Google, UPS, and Amazon are all hard at work getting their drone delivery services off the ground.
Safety, battery power, and logistics have been the primary concerns of drone deliveries in the past. But a recent study investigates a previously unconsidered piece of the puzzle: greenhouse gas emissions.
Can Drones Outmatch Delivery Trucks?
Research from Nature Communications has concluded that eight-rotor and four-rotor drones can outdo delivery trucks when it comes to lowering emissions. The article explains that even though drone-based package delivery currently faces technological challenges, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University have found significant promise in using drones to reduce energy use and greenhouse gas emissions, specifically in the freight sector, compared with traditional pathways.
This is especially useful in states like California where more electrical power comes from renewable energy sources. In California, drones would be able to deliver small packages (weighing one pound or less) with 59% fewer emissions of greenhouse gases. In Missouri, however, a state that utilizes more fossil fuel-based energy to provide the electricity that charges drone batteries, it's 17%. For heavier packages of 18 pounds, a drone would only have 17% fewer emissions than trucks in California and 77% more than trucks in Missouri. Although the number sounds small, 17% is still significant since trucks cause 24% of greenhouse gas emissions.
Is Drone Delivery Service Always the Answer?
In addition to helping lower greenhouse gas emissions, drones are faster than trucks and can travel a direct path—they won’t be caught in traffic or have to take winding paths to transport a package.
While drones could use less energy to transport small goods and release fewer emissions than delivery trucks, that advantage diminishes if drones are expected to deliver heavier loads. As packages get bigger, the drones carrying them need to be larger and require more electricity to recharge.
Joshua Stolaroff, the environmental scientist who led the Nature Communications study, sums it up nicely: if you’re delivering something small like a phone, drones are an excellent choice for the US—and the rest of the world. He goes on to say that a bigger drone carrying heavier items could lead to higher emissions in much of the United States based on our country’s current electricity grid.
The Biggest Takeaway
The study’s results dictate that drone-based delivery could reduce greenhouse gas emissions as well as energy use in the freight sector. However, it also reminds readers that regulators and firms must focus on minimizing the size of drones as well as extra warehousing to achieve the full environmental benefits of drone delivery.
In the past, the faster a package was delivered, the more greenhouse gas emissions would be released. For instance, truck shipping is more carbon-intensive than rail, while overnight air shipping is worse than both. But if battery-powered drones can replace diesel-reliant trucks to transport small packages, shipping companies could become greener without losing speed, resulting in quick, energy-efficient, and green deliveries.
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