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Research Question

  1. What are the problems that may arise and the trade-offs that may exist if drones become more widely used for package delivery in cities?

Delivery drones are being widely developed as a potential way to deliver packages, but their rapidly developing technology and lack of precedent pose challenges to understanding the potential societal impacts. As policymakers sort out their available policy levers, simple city-scale models can help provide a preliminary understanding of the issues. This study develops a series of analytical expressions (equations) that can be used to compare the scale of these challenges and the various trade-offs that exist for city planners, policymakers, logistics companies, and drone designers. These equations can be used to explore the effect on energy consumption, infrastructure requirements, aerial congestion, privacy, and noise for a range of cities and operating conditions. The author finds that, in urban settings and with the drone designs being put forward, one can expect delivery energy to increase by up to an order of magnitude for some cities. In addition, this figure decreases drastically, as does the total number of drones needed for the city, if multiple delivery centers are established instead of one central location. In some environments, the adverse effects (including energy consumption) appear to be at a level low enough that, when combined with expedited delivery time lines, there can be a strong case for drone delivery.

Key Findings

There May Be a Strong Case for Drone Delivery in Some Environments

  • In urban settings and with the drone designs being put forward, increasing the percentage of packages delivered by drone can increase the energy consumed per package delivered substantially — by up to an order of magnitude in some cases. However, the energy per drone-delivered package can be significantly reduced by having many drone centers distributed throughout a city or region instead of using one centralized center.
  • Requiring many drone centers has the additional benefits of reducing the size of the fleet, aerial congestion, and the privacy and noise concerns that overhead drones create.
  • In some environments, the adverse effects (including energy consumption) appear to be at a level low enough that, when combined with expedited delivery time lines, there can be a strong case for drone delivery.

Recommendation

  • Drone delivery systems should be encouraged by policy in some situations and discouraged in others. It is possible to roughly determine whether a set of conditions for a given city falls into the encourage or discourage categories by using low-cost analyses, such as those provided in this report. The same analyses can be used to provide or clarify options for reducing adverse impacts while retaining benefits as well. Along those lines, it appears that there can be substantial benefits to many parameters of interest by implementing policies that promote the use of multiple drone centers to service large cities as opposed to a single, centralized center.

This project is a RAND Venture. Funding was provided by gifts from RAND supporters and income from operations. The research was conducted by the Science, Technology and Policy Program within RAND Justice, Infrastructure, and Environment.

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