Delivery drones: sustainable or not?

Drone technology is evolving at a fast pace and has increasing potential to compete with more traditional alternatives in a number of sectors beyond retail and delivery. Drone technology has uncertain potential for reducing greenhouse gas emissions from e-commerce and the logistics industry and concerns over increased noise pollution and threats to wildlife.

The forecast growth in delivery drone fleets is based in part on the strong interest expressed by large multinational companies such as Amazon, DHL, and Google. Delivery drones are already in use today by enterprises such as Zipline International (for the delivery of medical products in Africa). The European Environment Agency looks at the impact of drones on sustainability.

Economic, social, and legal implications

The expected increase in the use of delivery drones is likely to have significant economic, social, and legal implications. The logistics industry increasingly sees delivery drones as a means to overcome shared problems relating to terrestrial transport (such as aging infrastructure, congestion, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and air pollutants), and a cost-effective solution to last-mile delivery. The European Commission estimates that the drone industry will have a considerable positive effect on the economy, valued at about EUR 10 billion per year, and will create approximately 100 000 new jobs in the next 20 years.

The use of delivery drones raises issues relating to safety, security, privacy, and ethics. Key safety and security issues related to the risk of collision with other drones or manned aircraft and crashes due to malfunctioning navigation or bad weather conditions. All these could result in serious harm to people and damage to property, which would be further exacerbated if the drone cargo is heavy or dangerous, or they are flying in urban or populated areas.

Other security issues related to the use of delivery drones for illicit purposes, such as smuggling, transport of drugs or weapons, or even terrorist attacks. In recent years, anti-nuclear activists have piloted drone flights over nuclear plants in France to demonstrate potential risks, while drone sightings at Gatwick Airport have cause disruption.

Privacy concerns related to a drone’s ability to record and transmit data in real-time Data generated and stored during flight and delivery could be associated with specific individuals and reveal sensitive details of private properties and public buildings.

Similar to other digitally-enabled technologies (e.g. self-driving cars), ethical issues also exist due to the use of algorithms. Autonomous drones might need to ‘make’ an ethical decision in situations where harm cannot be prevented because of an incident, such as where to crash, who to injure, and what damage to cause. As the algorithm for these decisions needs to be programmed in advance, the question remains who will decide and how the implementation of such decisions will be overseen.

Environmental perspective

From an environmental perspective, there are pros and cons to using drones for delivery services. The main expected benefit for the environment is that, compared with many traditional methods of delivery, drones could reduce CO2 emissions as well as other air pollutants for that sector. These results should be viewed with caution. They focus on a narrow market, i.e. last-mile delivery to a single or few recipients with a low payload. It is also unclear whether drone delivery will simply replace alternative delivery methods or lead to additional delivery trips. Given the expected timeline for commercial large-scale drone deliveries, electromobility will probably also be mainstream inland transport.

Recent studies also do not consider broader systemic effects along the entire logistics chain. For instance, even if the environmental impacts from direct emissions are reduced, emissions relating to extra warehousing, required by a drone-based logistics system, may reduce or eliminate the benefits. Therefore, reductions in emissions will depend on finding ways to diminish the negative impact of extra warehousing, decrease the size of drones, and continuously increase the use of renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind power, for drone operation.

In addition, the life cycle of batteries needs to be factored in. The absence of comprehensive assessments of the environmental impact of delivery drones prevents robust conclusions about GHGs and air pollutants.

Source: EEA

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