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Delivery drones ‘could halve freight emissions’

Professional Engineering

Commercial drone deliveries could halve freight carbon dioxide emissions (Credit: Shutterstock)
Commercial drone deliveries could halve freight carbon dioxide emissions (Credit: Shutterstock)

Commercial drones could cut carbon dioxide emissions from freight deliveries by half, a new report has found.

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) provide “an unprecedented opportunity for the logistics industry to reduce its environmental impact”, according to the report published today (26 October) by communications firm Inmarsat and Cranfield University.  

For the report, UAVs: Unlocking positive transformation in the world, the university used its own modelling and primary data resources to compare the CO2 emissions emitted by UAVs and small light commercial vehicles (LCVs). 

The report found that an LCV delivering 10 similar sized packages per eight-hour shift over a 5km delivery radius, following a regular schedule of consecutive deliveries, generates an estimated CO2 emission rate of 3,394 grams per 24 hours.  

In contrast, a large-sized UAV with a 50kg payload generates 1,800 grams of emissions per 24 hours for the same delivery protocol – a 47% reduction. A medium-sized UAV with a 36km range and 5kg payload, making separate individual journeys rather than consecutive deliveries, was estimated to generate 2,160 grams of CO2 over 24 hours – a reduction of 36% compared to LCV road transport.  

Based on analysis of both new and existing research, the report also identified other commercial advantages of UAVs, with cost and time savings leading to enhanced supply chain and business efficiencies.  

“Commercial UAVs have the potential to transform our world in a range of safe and environmentally-friendly ways,” said Cranfield pro-vice-chancellor Professor Dame Helen Atkinson. “This report is an important step in harnessing the power of UAVs and unlocking the opportunities they offer to advance air transport activities and services with fast and efficient delivery of goods.”  

It remains to be seen if consumer drone deliveries will be a success, however. Widespread deployment has so far been held back by air safety regulations, and a 2019 IMechE poll found that only 23% of adults support drone deliveries, with parcel thefts, accidents and noise some of the main concerns.  

Over the next seven years, the commercial UAV market is projected to increase from $2.32bn to $11.29bn. Despite the positive outlook, the report recognises the regulatory challenges in allowing UAVs to fly ‘beyond visual line of sight’ and integrate with other air traffic, as well as the need for well-structured regulation that defines the roles and responsibilities of all airspace users.  

“Our new report with Cranfield University is packed with valuable insights that reinforce the positive and far-reaching impact of commercial UAVs on numerous aspects of society and business," said Anthony Spouncer, Inmarsat’s senior director of UAVs.  

“However, it’s also clear that unless autonomous vehicles and unmanned aviation are safely and securely integrated into managed airspace, their true potential cannot be unlocked on a commercial scale.  

“Inmarsat is uniquely placed to deliver airspace integration with our recently launched Velaris UAV connectivity solution, working side-by-side with global regulators, air navigation service providers, UAV operators and an international partner network. Powered by our global Elera L-band satellite network, Velaris will deliver new digital automation capabilities, allowing operators to send drones on long distance flights and access applications, including real-time monitoring, to ensure safe integration with other air traffic users." 


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Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

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