WILL IT TAKE OFF: Are drones the answer?
Let’s talk Drones
A drone is a flying robot that can be remotely controlled or fly autonomously using software-controlled flight plans in its embedded systems that work in conjunction with onboard sensors and a global positioning system (GPS).
What can it do?
- Express shipping and delivery
- Unmanned cargo transport
- Law enforcement and border control surveillance
- Storm tracking and forecasting hurricanes and tornadoes
- Aerial photography for journalism and film
- Gathering information or supplying essentials for disaster management
- Thermal sensor drones for search and rescue operations
- Geographic mapping for inaccessible locations
- Building safety inspections
- Precision crop monitoring
Development of hundreds of more uses for drones is underway due to the daily investments pouring into this promising industry.
Perhaps the most scalable opportunity is Delivery’s…
For e-commerce companies and small entrepreneurs, paying a delivery person for a small distance is costly, even if the efficiency is low. So, a drone is a better substitute for the delivery person to reduce operational costs.
Drones with GPS, transmission and Gyro stabilization technology are used to deliver parcels over small distances.
It saves staffing and shifts unnecessary road traffic to the sky. In addition, drones can quickly deliver small packages, medicines, food, etc., over short, and now long distances.
What is Last Mile delivery? One potential area to cut costs is the last mile — the last phase of shipment where a parcel is transported from the fulfilment right to the end customer.
Last mile delivery makes up around 41% of a business’s total supply chain costs. Even retailers who can tighten up the rest of their supply chain find that their last-mile delivery schemes are still inefficient.
How has China responded to the delivery challenge? China’s last-mile strategy looks vastly different from Western nations.
China’s final delivery process is unique in a few different ways:
- They have lots of small service centres around cities.
- Small motorcycles make multiple trips back and forth every day to deliver parcels more regularly.
- Large parcel pick-up lockers are located around cities.
China has 50-100 service centres in a major city. Small vehicles visit these centres numerous times a day for pick-ups. These are often people on motorbikes, weaving through traffic to make deliveries.
They also have parcel lockers all over the city. Huge lockers are placed strategically for customers to pick up packages securely. The use of these lockers cuts down on everyone’s least favourite notification: “no delivery available”.
China developed this system out of sheer necessity. Their e-commerce market exploded, and supply chain players had to evolve. Now, the U.S. and others can look to the Chinese model to optimize last mile logistics.
How do drones fit in? Last-mile delivery is costly in China due to many rural towns, where delivery destinations are far apart, and terrain can be challenging, with geographical obstacles such as mountains acting as barriers. Drones can navigate remote areas more effectively to meet the supply needs of the growing e-commerce market in rural areas.
Is it worth it?
It’s easy to get excited over the possibility that a flying car future could become a reality in the not-too-distant future. But already, we’re seeing companies getting caught out for greenwashing, and it’s becoming a trend to talk about sustainability without doing anything as if writing about it somehow makes you an environmentally ethical business.
A study carried out by Timothy R. Gulden from RAND corporation used a geographic information system analysis to compare truck versus delivery drone energy use in the report.
Drones and trucks use different amounts of energy and are suited to very different routing strategies, this raises the question of how such a shift might change the overall energy consumption required for package delivery.
The report provided a “simple simulation of the total energy-use impact of shifting the most suitable (lightest total weight) 20 percent of the United Parcel Service (UPS) package delivery stops in a US city from traditional UPS trucks to delivery drones.” – Timothy R. Gulden study.
The numbers and calculations in the preliminary study are rough. However, the analysis supports the idea that the energy requirements for truck and drone delivery for small packages are of the same magnitude and that drones may already be more energy efficient for delivering small (5 lbs or less) packages. For example, the study found that if 20 percent of stops involve the delivery of 5 lbs or less of material, shifting the servicing of these stops to drones could save as much as 5.7 percent of the energy used to deliver packages within 10 miles of the centre of an American city.
It’s very difficult to compare the two and to say one is better than the other. However, it’s safe to say that from the study, there is no conclusive evidence to suggest drones are more sustainable for delivery than our current system.
A team from the Martin Luther University of Halle-Wittenberg (MLU) in Germany has found that drones consume comparatively high amounts of energy in densely populated areas, and wind conditions strongly influence their range.
The study also shows that this disparity is less relevant in rural areas, where vans may need to drive considerable distances between each drop-off, supporting the need for “last mile delivery” systems to be integrated in rural areas.
They also found that converting delivery vans from diesel to electric is far more efficient than drones and requires less infrastructural change.
However, in either case, there is evidence to suggest some savings by integrating drones into our delivery system, providing an alternative to diesel vehicles. On a large scale worldwide, there is potential for substantial energy-saving possibilities.
I started writing this expecting drone efficiency over truck and van efficiency to be a landslide victory for the drone. However, comparing the data and reading more studies, I need more convincing. I still believe there is enormous potential and that the applications for this tech are immense, but is it the key to sustainable delivery systems worldwide? Time will tell…
In the previous post in the series, “Will it take off?” I investigated eVTOL air taxis, having had such impressive stands at Farnborough; however, there were some equally impressive drone stands. The way drone value is communicated is interesting compared to air taxis. Drones focused much more on their capabilities, using graphics to demonstrate a drone’s function. In contrast, air taxis were much more about the machine itself and how grand and impressive their technology is; its described as a “race to air dominance” when arguably the goal is greener and cleaner transportation, not to monopoly and pollute the skies…
Though I’m not convinced drones are the answer to the sustainability challenges of delivery systems, they have energy-saving possibilities if used correctly.