Are Drones Really "The Most Climate Friendly Way to Ship Packages"?

©. Andreas Rentz/Getty Images

Why does everybody forget about bikes? They are transportation and they do deliveries.

There is a new study published in Nature: Energy use and life cycle greenhouse gas emissions of drones for commercial package delivery. It studies the energy consumption of various forms of delivery and finds that drones have a lower carbon footprint than delivery trucks.

We show that, although drones consume less energy per package-km than delivery trucks, the additional warehouse energy required and the longer distances traveled by drones per package greatly increase the life-cycle impacts. Still, in most cases examined, the impacts of package delivery by small drone are lower than ground-based delivery. Results suggest that, if carefully deployed, drone-based delivery could reduce greenhouse gas emissions and energy use in the freight sector.

footrpint of different transport media

© Energy required per km of travel for individual package delivery vehicles/ Joshuah K. Stolaroff et al

The study author tells the Guardian:

"Drones can make a significant impact on emissions, especially now that transport is the biggest polluting sector out there,” said Joshuah Stolaroff, an environmental scientist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. “That last mile of getting goods to a destination is a big part of the emissions picture. There are plenty of plausible scenarios where drones can do environmental good.”

Amy Harder of Axios actually calls drones "the most climate friendly way to ship packages." But for it to work, there would have to be a whole new network of warehouses, a whole different distribution system.

...because of their limited range, the use of drones for on-demand package delivery likely requires additional infrastructure in the form of urban warehouses. These distributed warehouses would need to store a range of products to enable rapid delivery to consumers, increasing the total inventory and floor space required. Another possibility is combining warehouses with urban waystations, where packages could be relayed to fully charged drones, thereby increasing total drone range. In either case, many new warehouses or waystations would be required to support a drone-based delivery system.

drone bases san francisco

© Example coverage of drone delivery systems/ Joshuah K. Stolaroff et al

They calculate that these mini-warehouses or way stations would have to be located about 3.5 km apart; four would be needed to cover San Francisco and 112 to cover the whole Bay Area.

Laurie Featherstone on bike

That's no drone delivering my coffee, it's Laurie Featherstone./CC BY 2.0

Yet there is a bizarre cognitive dissonance going on here. You know what else works really well in a 4 Km range? Bikes. The study lists small drones and personal electric vehicles and even gasoline powered helicopter drones, but no bikes -- even though bikes and e-bikes are used for deliveries across the world. There are even wars over them in New York City! And yet, no bikes. It is not that the authors are in a Silicon Valley vaccuum; there are lots of bike delivery startups out there.

Bike in Berlin

That's no drone, it's a Berlin Mail bike/CC BY 2.0

This is a long and detailed study that looks at everything from the manufacture of batteries to the source of the electricity charging them. And yet it doesn't mention once the most climate-friendly form of delivery. They say "Here we develop scenarios for truck and drone delivery to compare impacts among drones and traditional delivery methods" without mentioning a very traditional one that is making a comeback: bicycles.

cargo bike

That's no drone, it's a Bullet in Copenhagen./CC BY 2.0

Of course, we are just beginning to get people thinking about bicycles as transportation, let alone as a delivery vehicle. We have written about how the German government is promoting it and how Whole Foods is doing it in Brooklyn, but I guess neither of those are American examples.

I am apparently not alone in thinking that this study is more about justifying the use of drones than it is for really developing a rational, carbon efficient transport and delivery system. If it was, then they would have included bikes and e-bikes; they deliver drone-sized packages for drone-like distances with the carbon footprint of half a cookie.