Delivery drones are great, but if you want to save the environment then trucks are still better

Companies from Amazon to Walmart to DHL are exploring how to make drone deliveries a reality, but truck deliveries are still the most environmental friendly way of getting goods to customers.

Research by University of Washington (UW) has found that while drones may be able to reduce carbon dioxide emissions when they don’t have to fly very far  or when a delivery route has few recipients, trucks are still a more climate-friendly option when a delivery route has many stops or is farther away from a central warehouse.

In the past few years lots of work has been put into making drones light and durable enough to perform deliveries, but, according to the research, it may be time to put that same emphasis into engineering lightweight trucks.

“We haven’t applied the same level of effort to engineering lightweight trucks — they’re excessively heavy and the on-road fleet doesn’t look much different than it did a few decades ago,” said UW associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, Anne Goodchild.

“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.”

One of the world’s first delivery drones. Image courtesy of DHL

While public debate has largely focused on cost reduction, privacy implications and airspace congestion, few people have analysed the environmental consequences that drone technology may have if fully adopted by industries.

The UW’s testing compared carbon dioxide emissions and vehicle miles travelled from drone and truck deliveries in 10 different, real-world scenarios in Los Angeles.

The analysis also assumed that drones could carry only one package at a time and would return to a depot after each delivery — requiring far more back-and-forth and vehicle miles travelled than for an equivalent truck route.

“Flight is so much more energy-intensive — getting yourself airborne takes a huge amount of effort. So I initially thought there was no way drones could compete with trucks on carbon dioxide emissions,” said Goodchild.

“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.”

Image courtesy of Amazon. Featured image courtesy of Mike Mozart

The researchers concluded that it’s unlikely that drones will be used for all delivery applications, but a scenario could exist where a truck hauls an entire load of packages to a centralized location, and then a fleet of drones fans out in opposite directions to reach individual homes or businesses.

“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.”

First floating city set to advance the development of drone taxis: Hoverbike director

A talk at The First Tahitian Seasteading Gathering yesterday has opened up the possibility of seasteadings – small floating cities – as a proving ground for people-carrying drones. With the first floating ‘island’ units having undergone early-stage testing for a seasteading off French Polynesia, the work currently being done could act as fuel for a variety of experimental technologies.

The talk was given by Oriol Badia Rafart, director of business development at Malloy Aeronautics. Building on Malloy’s work with the Hoverbike, Rafart described the development of “the uber of the skies, the airline of daily objects”. At the basic level, Rafart believes that floating cities will act as an accelerant for the development of drones in our daily lives.

The development of drones for wider commercial use is not a unique idea; Airbus for example is working on the development of various drone-based forms of public transportation. In concept, by making use of the skies we ease road congestion and, in no small part due to the automation, can potentially come up with more efficient modes of transport.

Rafart, however, focuses on the belief that the development of seasteadings will provide a fertile ground for scientific development. Moreover, it is the kind of development that will be vastly accelerated by the purpose and environment of a seasteading.

A proposed design for the French Polynesia-based floating city. Image and featured image courtesy of The Seasteading Institute

He suggests that the kind of machinery Malloy is developing is perfectly suited to the philosophy of the Seasteading Institute.

“The Seasteading Institute wants to create an ecosystem in which progress can happen: social progress, political progress and scientific progress,” he said. “We at Malloy Aeronautics believe we have to put technology and machines to work for those individuals there so they can focus only on such purpose.”

Of course, what makes the Seasteading Institute’s work of real value to people like Malloy is regulation. Free of traditional government, and established with the purpose of progress, seasteadings are ideal environments in which to test and develop technologies that would otherwise become quickly entangled in regulatory red tape.

A hoverbike developed by Malloy Aeronautics. Image courtesy of Malloy Aeronautics

It is of course understandable why regulations are in place over autonomous drones. If something goes wrong, no one wants a hoverbike plummeting from the sky above a busy street. That said, though, as laid out by Rafart, the current state of regulations poses large problems to making any actual progress in the field.

“Regulations that don’t allow any vehicle to fly without a pilot, to fly out of the line of sight and beyond the line of sight of a pilot, to fly to and from platforms that are not fixed in the ground, and they classify these vehicles and drones by their weight instead of by their use and their safety,” he said. “So, in sum, regulations that don’t understand what they are regulating.”

This sounds all well and good: the establishment of seasteadings as bastions of scientific progress that, free of regulation, allow researchers and companies to make quantum leaps in development. However, I’m just going to note that this whole thing is a little creepily reminiscent of Bioshock. Of course I want to ride a hoverbike. But the memories of an ocean-based society devoted purely to scientific progress with no limitation are a little too real.