RAND Corporation Research Report: The City-Scale Impacts of Drone Delivery

DHL's ParcelCopter

On Wednesday, RAND Corporation released a research report on delivery drones titled ‘What’s the Buzz? The City-Scale Impacts of Drone Delivery’. The report specifically deals with city package deliveries using drones, using mathematical models to assess the impact on energy consumption, infrastructure requirements, aerial congestion, privacy, and noise.

The report does not go into the effect that weather could have on drone delivery logistics, but that is understandable. The logistics industry still has many other, more immediate, challenges to solve before even getting to the point of solving for weather.

I have pulled out some of what I found interesting in the report. Below that you can read the report for yourself as it is quite comprehensive and asks some interesting questions regarding mass delivery by drone vs delivery by truck vs a combination of both.

Personally, I just do not see mass drone deliveries in cities being a viable means of package delivery long term. Airspace management, recreational vs commercial congestion and privacy are big factors attributing to why I do not see it at the moment. Also electric drive and autonomous driving technologies are improving quite rapidly, by the time safe and efficient mass city drone delivery is solved, the need for it might have already fallen away.

Where I do see drone deliveries happening is outside the cities in the more rural areas. The DHL Parcelcopter trial (see first video below) is a good example of using a drone to deliver packages to remote, hard to reach by truck places. We will likely first see fully autonomous Cessna Caravan’s doing the night cargo runs for Fedex and perhaps not long after that begin to see Caravan size tilt-wing, or other separate lift thrust VTOLs, doing runs to remote places from where a truck (eventually fully automated and electric) then distributes the packages on street level. Time will tell though, truly grasping exponential progress is a difficult thing and not long from now we might (are likely to?) see some completely new technology or idea which solves these questions.

Interesting extracts from RAND Corporation’s research report ‘What’s the Buzz? The City-Scale Impacts of Drone Delivery’

“Objectives and Approach

In this report, we explore the city-scale impacts of delivery drone operations on the following areas: energy consumption, infrastructure requirements, aerial congestion, privacy, and noise.

The lack of precedent for large-scale delivery drones and the proprietary nature of both the
aircraft designs and the business models increase the challenges that policymakers face in
gaining that understanding, but simple mathematical models can help fill in the gaps. The models we created and present in this report provide a means to understand the scale of the problems that may arise and the relationships or trade-offs that exist. We use these models to understand the implications of delivery drones for a range of hypothetical cities. In particular, we derive an equation describing the energy consumed for a city based on parameters related to the city, the delivery vehicles, and the percentage of packages delivered by drone. The model includes the energy used for truck-based deliveries and that used for drone-based deliveries. We also derive a queuing theory model to estimate the number of drones required to ensure a given level of service (probability of having at least one drone available at all times). Additionally, we provide simple models of aerial congestion, observable range of the ground fleet, and noise produced at the ground level.

Using these mathematical models and an underlying literature review and expert discussions, we address the following questions:
• How much energy will drone deliveries consume compared with truck deliveries?
• How much infrastructure would be required, and how would infrastructure choices affect
other outcomes?
• How much aerial congestion can be expected throughout the city?
• What are the privacy implications of delivery drones? In particular, how much of a city
could delivery drones be used to monitor?
• How much additional noise would drones contribute?”

“We derive an equation describing the energy consumed for a city based on parameters related to the city, the delivery vehicles, and the percentage of packages delivered by drone. The model includes the energy used for truck-based deliveries and that used for drone-based ones; it finds that 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. The reason for this is that for large cities, the drones have to repeatedly fly relatively long distances, whereas trucks can drive that distance once and then deliver many packages within a smaller region.

However, in the short term, trucks will be primarily gas-powered and drones are more likely to be electric-powered, potentially using renewable sources; in addition, 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.

Providing many distributed drone centers also decreases the number of drones required to
service a city. We derive a queuing theory model to estimate the number of drones required to ensure a given level of service (the probability of having at least one drone available at all times).

An increased number of drone centers decreases the time per flight, thus allowing for more
deliveries with fewer drones. But that relationship breaks down for large numbers of drone
centers; the size of the community serviced by an individual drone center decreases, and random fluctuations lead to more instances of outsized order volume.”

“Although commercial drones have now begun delivering commercial packages and research is starting to address delivery drone logistics, policymakers understand very little about the impact that the widespread adoption of delivery drones would have on cities around the world.

There are a wide range of expected positive effects, including economic benefits, convenience, and delivery of time-critical goods and services to difficult-to-reach places. But there is also potential for negative effects related to aerial congestion, privacy, noise, energy consumption, and air pollution. Weighing these myriad costs and benefits has been difficult because robust data sources are unavailable, a large-scale drone delivery system has not yet been attempted anywhere in the world, and the detailed drone designs and business plans are proprietary information.”

Download ‘What’s the Buzz? The City-Scale Impacts of Drone Delivery’

Mentioned in the research report, and also an interesting read, is Uber Elevate’s whitepaper, linked here. Download Uber Elevate’s whitepaper ‘Fast-Forwarding to a Future of On-Demand Urban Air Transportation’

On our Tuesday live YouTube show, Drone Stuff This Week, amongst several other topics we discussed Unmanned Traffic Management systems and how they relate to drone registrations and drone deliveries.