The Energy Implications of Drones for Package Delivery

A Geographic Information System Comparison

by Timothy Gulden

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Research Question

  1. How might shifting the delivery of smaller packages from trucks to drones be expected to change the overall energy consumption required for package delivery?

Delivery drones may become widespread over the next five to ten years, particularly for what is known as the "last-mile" logistics of small, light items. Companies like Amazon, Google, the United Parcel Service, DHL, and Alibaba have been running high-profile experiments testing drone delivery systems, and the development of such systems reached a milestone when the first commercial drone delivery approved by the Federal Aviation Administration took place on July 17, 2015. In the future, drones could augment, or even replace, truck fleets and could have important implications for energy consumption, public safety, personal privacy, air pollution, city noise, air traffic management, road congestion, urban planning, and goods and service consumption patterns in urban areas.

To support developing issues in this domain, the RAND Corporation launched an exploratory study that brings together RAND's expertise in unmanned aerial vehicle operations, transportation research, systems analysis, and behavioral analysis and applies it to this emerging and underexplored research area.

In this report, we provide 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 Minneapolis from traditional UPS trucks to delivery drones. The reduced number of stops would allow for a smaller truck delivery fleet delivering to fewer service areas.

Key Findings

Shifting smaller-package delivery from trucks to drones results in a net savings of 5.7 percent of the overall energy used.

  • We found that shifting 20 percent of delivery stops from trucks to drones would require 13 fewer truck routes, 468 fewer truck miles, and (assuming an efficiency of 10 miles per gallon) 46.8 fewer gallons of diesel fuel. The drone delivery would involve 1,550 drone trips, totaling 9,406 miles flown. Assuming a tilt-rotor fixed-wing design, other work in this project suggests a delivery drone fuel economy of 460 miles per gallon equivalent, allowing all the deliveries to be conducted with the energy equivalent of 20.4 gallons of diesel. This results in a savings of 26.4 gallons of diesel, for a net savings of about 5.7 percent.

Drones may be an energy-saving way to deliver light packages, although they are unlikely to replace trucks for heavier items.

  • The savings come primarily from the fact that trucks are vastly heavier than drones. By using drones to deliver only the lightest packages, the deliverer is able to free the truck, with its greater weight and additional cargo, from the additional driving required to deliver that small package. Reducing the number of service areas also reduces the amount of driving required for the trucks.
  • Drone energy use would be entirely electric. Depending on the sourcing of this power, it would be expected to have a much lower carbon footprint and to produce less local air pollution as well.

Recommendation

  • While the numbers and calculations in this preliminary study are rough, the analysis supports the idea that the energy requirements for truck and drone delivery for small packages are of the same order of magnitude and, thus, that shifting some deliveries to drones would not have a major impact on the energy intensity of package delivery. However, it would shift this energy from diesel-burning trucks to electric drones, which might have a beneficial impact on the carbon footprint of package delivery until the delivery truck fleet can be converted to lower-carbon fuels. While practical considerations of noise abatement and airspace restriction might reduce this efficiency somewhat, rapid advances in battery technology and drone design can be expected to produce more than offsetting increases in efficiency.

Table of Contents

  • Chapter One

    Introduction

  • Chapter Two

    Analyzing the Impact on Energy Use of Shifting Delivery Stops from Trucks to Drones

  • Chapter Three

    Conclusions

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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