Drone Deliveries Good for the Environment, New Study Finds

BY Zacc Dukowitz
21 February 2018

A new study in Nature Communications  finds that drone deliveries would be good for the environment.


The study was conducted by researchers at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and Carnegie Mellon University, and found that using drones instead of trucks would mean an overall reduction in energy consumption by switching the delivery method from gas-fueled to electricity-fueled, as well as a reduction in the release of greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change.

But these findings don’t apply to all drones.

Only the use of small drones for deliveries would have a positive impact on the environment—big drones could actually be worse for the environment, the study notes.

Results suggest that, if carefully deployed, drone-based delivery could reduce greenhouse gas emissions and energy use in the freight sector.

Note: All quotes in this article come from Joshua K. Stolaroff et al.’s paper, Energy use and life cycle greenhouse gas emissions of drones for commercial package delivery

The Details

The study didn’t find that drones are always the better option when it comes to making deliveries, but rather that small drones used for short-distance deliveries—the distance is important because it cuts down the resources needed for storing delivery items—would have a positive impact on the environment.

As noted in an article from the Smithsonian written by the researchers, when it comes to delivering heavier packages over long distances, using trucks would actually be more efficient and cleaner than using drones.

The focus of drones should be on light packages, with heavier packages left for ground vehicles.

Of course, this research really just presents a snapshot of the present moment. Currently trucks are driven for the most part using gasoline, which means that electric-powered drones will produce fewer carbon emissions by comparison.

But if new technology allows delivery trucks to tap into electricity as an alternate fuel source at scale, this would mean a whole new equation when it comes to which delivery method is the best for the environment.

Most likely, the ideal delivery method of the future will be some amalgam of trucks and drones, with the specific vehicle used selected based on the weight of the package, and the distance needed to travel.

How Researchers View the Likelihood of Drone Delivery in the U.S.

While reading through the study itself, one thing we found noteworthy was that the researchers seem to see widespread adoption of drone delivery as a likely thing.

The use of drones for commercial package delivery is poised to become a new industry.

As the researchers note in their study, several companies are developing programs for package delivery using drones, including Amazon, Google, UPS, and Deutsche Post DHL.

Project Wing tests real-world drone deliveries in Australia

We’ll admit that we’d grown a little jaded about drone delivery programs over the last year or so.

For a while it seemed like all we saw were overhyped press releases that didn’t represent real progress, but seemed more like media ploys to keep drone deliveries top of mind for the public.

But at the end of 2017, when we looked back at the progress made on the drone delivery front, it was clear that some impressive strides had been made.

A Flytrex delivery drone

Currently there are active drone delivery programs in Iceland, Rwanda, Australia, and Switzerland, with many more in the works throughout the world.

The idea that drone deliveries could become a reality in the U.S. isn’t so crazy anymore, which is further confirmed by the fact that U.S. researchers are starting to take drone delivery seriously, and consider the possible consequences—both good and bad—from such a radical reshaping of how we deliver goods.

One way forward could come in the shape of a recent pilot program proposed by the North Carolina Department of Transportation as part of the White House’s new Drone Integration Pilot Program—whose goal is to explore sharing airspace authority between federal and local entities—which proposes to use drones to deliver medical supplies. If accepted, it would represent real forward progress for the drone delivery movement here in the U.S.

However things shape up, we still have some major legislative hurdles to overcome before we’ll ever see drone deliveries become a reality.

But the fact that research like this is being conducted, and that its findings show that drone deliveries would be good for the environment—well, that’s certainly something to make us smile.

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