What is the environmental impact of drones? Careless hobbyists can do a lot of environmental damage with them, but this article concerns professional uses of drones. In responsible hands, they have potential to do a lot of good. Drone delivery, however, has some potential downsides.
Drones, also known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), only recently came on the scene. They have already found all kinds of uses. Businesses, industry, science, government agencies (especially the military), and individuals out for a good time have all found ways to use drone technology.
The two terms mean pretty much the same thing. The FAA mostly uses unmanned aerial vehicles. The general public and the military mostly use drones. By whatever name, they are either remotely controlled by a pilot on the ground or preprogrammed to fly autonomously.
Advantages of drones
Unmanned aerial vehicles cost much less to buy and operate than other aircraft. They require less training and expertise to control. As a result, a wide range of operators can use UAVs.
Drones fly at lower altitudes with a greater range of movement. They offer opportunity to collect excellent aerial photography and video. Among other applications, they make it possible to construct 3D maps and interactive models. When disaster strikes, a good 3D map of the area can help recovery efforts and enhance the safety of rescue teams.
UAVs use the Global Positioning System to maneuver to precise locations with great accuracy. In agriculture, this accuracy enables farmers to monitor crop health and identify weed or insect infestations. With this information, they can spray fertilizer and pesticides more accurately. UAV technology can therefore save them time and money.
This precision and maneuverability also make drones very useful for providing security at sporting events and other large public gatherings.
Disadvantages of drones
Unfortunately, all these advantages also provide opportunity for unscrupulous people to spy and steal. Drones can too easily invade people’s privacy.
Airplanes operate under strict air traffic control. No such system yet exists for drones. With so many drone operators working independently of each other, each drone needs ability to detect other drones to avoid midair collisions.
And even without collisions, system failures can allow drones to fall from the sky. Falling drones endanger people and property below, which can be especially serious when used over highly populated areas or crowds.
Uses of drones that will probably help the environment
Drones with various sensors can greatly help monitor all kinds of environmental conditions. They can provide regular assessments of how the landscape in particular areas changes. And they operate not only on land but can also visit ocean waters and glaciers.
Weather forecasting has become much more accurate since satellite technology has become available. UAVs promise to bring still more improvements as they become more robustly constructed. For example, they can fly into a storm and collect measurements that a manned vehicle couldn’t safely get.
Law enforcement can also use drones. As far as the environment is concerned, using drones can help detect and halt illegal deforestation and wildlife poaching.
The criminals mostly operate at night. Drones with infrared cameras, thermal sensors, or other night vision optics can find them and enable law enforcement to arrest them. They can also find hidden traps and snares so law enforcement can remove them.
Here is more detail about other helpful uses of drones:
Every minute of every day, the equivalent of 36 football fields suffers deforestation. Deforestation is a leading driver of climate change and loss of biodiversity. We can’t manage what we can’t measure. UAV technology has begun to transform data collection in remote areas.
Before drones became available, the only way to monitor wilderness conditions was either to walk through it or fly over it with a plane. Many areas are not accessible by foot. Some were not even navigable by plane.
Drones allow researchers to see areas they can’t walk to and much closer to the ground than planes can get. Drones provide more data than anyone could gather before. They have been especially valuable in mapping wildfires.
As palm oil plantations displace native forests, drones can help scientists monitor orangutan nests to minimize disturbing them.
But beyond information gathering, drones equipped with robotic devices can replant seedlings in deforested areas.
DroneSeed, a UAV company that specializes in reforestation, uses drones in multiple ways. First, it sends one to scan an area and produce a 3D map. Software analyzes this data to determine where to plant seeds for the highest survival rate.
Other software devises flight paths for the next deployment of drones. These drones dispense seed vessels that also include fertilizer and a pepper taste to deter rodents and other creatures from eating the seeds.
A fleet of three drones can seed an area in a sixth the time it would take a standard planting crew. What’s more, drones can plant trees in harsh terrain human crews can’t work in. Rapid reseeding in areas devastated by forest fires prevents tall shrubs from taking over.
The chlorophyll in healthy plants reflects more near-infrared and green light than the lack of it in sick or dying plants. Drones can also monitor irrigation systems to reduce wasting water.
Use of drones instead of airplanes for crop dusting saves not only the fuel used by the plane and the resulting emissions, but it also enables more precisely targeted application of the chemicals. For example, drones can move between rows and apply herbicides only where they detect weeds.
In livestock farming, Australians already use helicopters to assist in herding. Drones can accomplish the same tasks more sustainably and with less expense. Not only that, they can help manage individual animals. Researchers are working on autonomous diagnostic systems that will be able to detect raised temperatures or other signs of illness.
Drones cost less to operate than planes, and deploying less chemicals saves money in addition to the environmental benefit.
We have long had to race against deterioration of our infrastructure. Bridges and dams crumble more quickly than repair crews can get to them. Less obvious to the general public, so do oil pipelines.
Inspecting a pipeline or high voltage transmission line with a drone instead of on foot gathers more data more quickly and more safely. It also cuts down on the number of cars and trucks necessary to transport inspectors and equipment to and from sites.
Wind turbines and solar installations have begun to reach the end of their useful life. High voltage power lines suffer damage from bad weather or traffic accidents. UAVs can inspect all these structures faster and more safely than humans can. More data can help detect problems earlier when they’re less complicated to fix.
Package delivery: one use of drones that may not help the environment
In the summer of 2020, the Federal Aviation Administration granted air carrier certificates to Amazon, Wing (Google’s drone-related company) and UPS. The certification allowed them to operate delivery drones. Before that, smaller drone companies had successfully delivered emergency medical supplies.
So far, FAA regulations restrict where and how far drones can fly. The agency will have to work out appropriate licensing and air traffic control for drones before it can allow drone delivery to become commonplace. Among all the uses of drones, however, this one has some potentially serious drawbacks.
Environmental benefits of drone delivery
When you buy anything, you take advantage of an industry, transportation, that accounts for 29% of gas emissions in the US. No matter how it makes it to your door, it has traveled in medium- and heavy-duty trucks that emit almost a quarter of that amount.
Amazon and other drone delivery companies look to UAVs to help them reduce emissions and start to make their shipments net zero carbon.
How green drone delivery is depends on what fuel recharges its batteries. Delivering a one-pound package by drone in California, which produces more solar power than it can use during the day, reduces emissions by 54% those of a diesel truck. In Missouri, which generates most of its electricity from coal, the drone reduces emissions by only 23%.
Drones have some important advantages as delivery vehicles. They carry light-weight packages over short distances with greater energy efficiency than trucks. That’s true even though trucks can carry multiple packages, where drones have to travel more miles to make the same number of deliveries. The advantage disappears, however, when drones must carry heavier objects or carry packages greater distances.
Also, unmanned drones need no seatbelts, airbags, or other safety equipment—not to mention not needing to carry the weight of a driver. This advantage may also disappear if driverless trucks become common.
And the advantage of drones over delivery trucks will shrink once electric trucks supplant gas and diesel trucks.
Our addiction to speed and convenience
But drone delivery companies don’t tout energy efficiency or safety. They advertise speed. Therein lies the chief environmental problem.
The kinds of suburban neighborhoods built after the Second World War had no nearby shops or amenities. Residents had to drive to buy much of anything. After a while, many people thought nothing of coming home from a shopping trip, realizing they had forgotten something, and making another trip to the store to get it. Waiting till the next shopping trip seemed too inconvenient.
I have written numerous articles on the cost of convenience and specifically about the environmental cost of two-day shipping. Suppose you order something from Amazon, you live in Tennessee, and the closest warehouse that has your item is in Oregon. With ordinary shipping, your order ships when the closest warehouse receives it either from the factory or the Oregon warehouse. If you have ordered several items, they will ship only after they are all together in the warehouse.
With two-day shipping, on the other hand, the distant warehouse must ship a single item to the closer warehouse, probably using air cargo. If you have ordered more than one item, each might be shipped separately. Two-day shipping therefore uses more energy and produces more packaging for you to discard. Using a drone for final delivery doesn’t help much.
Amazon claims that ultra-fast delivery via drone—within hours––will not have the same environmental disadvantages. For one thing, not all items will be available to be shipped that way. Certainly, the drone could only carry it from the nearest location. Amazon intends to limit it to shipping packages that weigh five pounds or less to customers who live within ten miles of a delivery station.
Problems with warehouses
At the time it received authorization to ship by drone, Amazon had 110 fulfillment centers. It quickly announced its intention to build a thousand smaller delivery centers.
Does drone delivery requires more warehouses? Actually, it needs fewer warehouses in order to maximize its environmental potential.
The US has seen a boom in building warehouses that added a billion square feet of capacity during the 2010s.
Those warehouses require lighting, heating, air conditioning and more. And that’s on top of the upfront energy required to build them in the first place. That amount of building, in other words, has a seriously negative environmental impact.
Alternatives to warehouses for drone delivery
Instead, drone delivery should take advantage of existing facilities. Drones could take off from the roofs of stores instead of warehouses. With its purchase of Whole Foods, Amazon has gained experience with brick-and-mortar stores. If it owns or develops partnerships with retail stores, drone delivery from them will be available to a significant portion of the population.
Or perhaps drones could be paired with delivery trucks. Once the truck reaches a particular neighborhood, the drones would deliver all the lighter packages leaving the driver only with the responsibility of heavier items.
Amazon has installed solar panels on some of its fulfillment centers, panels that supply about 80% of the centers’ energy needs. It has also worked to develop more sustainable packaging. Even so, its carbon emissions rose 15% from 2018 to 2019. Smaller drone companies may not have the capacity to make comparable improvements to their own infrastructure.
It would also help to develop higher-capacity batteries that can fly farther on a single charge. Use of drones delivers a considerable environmental upside, even in the transportation sector.
But public demand for ever-faster shipping can have ever more serious environmental consequences. What happens if a critical mass of people get in the habit of ordering a new shirt because delivery takes less time than doing a load of laundry?
7 pros and cons of drones and unmanned aerial vehicles / Ohio University College of Engineering. May 11, 2021
Could drone deliveries help the environment? Let’s unpack that / Samantha Masunaga, Los Angeles Times. November 17, 2019
Drones at the centre of our sustainable future / Richard Burrett and Jim Totty, Sustainability Magazine. April 20, 2021
Drones will help save the environment. here’s how: / Adam Shore, Dronegenuity
How drones are saving our forests and making a difference / Emily Folk, Blue and Green Tomorrow. September 11, 2020
Is Amazon drone delivery really all that environmentally friendly? / Sally French, University of Washington Supply Chain Transportation & Logistics Center. September 10, 2020