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What’s more environmentally friendly: drone delivery or truck delivery?

With all the hype around the impending era of drone delivery, the industry is grappling with questions like air traffic management, pickup and drop-off locations, and security.  There’s the debate over whether drones are more or less cost efficient than traditional postal trucks.

But one of the questions that the industry has only scratched the surface on: are drones more environmentally friendly than parcel delivery trucks?

The short answer is: sometimes. And here’s the long answer:

On the surface, drones create less carbon pollution than trucks. Most drones are battery powered, and can be recharged through green energy sources like solar power. There is no gasoline involved or exhaust produce from delivery trucks.

But delivery trucks can also offer a massive amount of packages in one trip, while a drone can only transport small payloads at a time.

Moving ALL Amazon deliveries to drones would be the equivalent of running approximately 3-5x as many vans on the road, according to iniLabs CEO Kynan Eng. But most delivery companies are pushing drones for either “last-mile deliveries” or for extremely lightweight deliveries.

Impact of drones vs. trucks on carbon pollution


UW civil and environmental engineering graduate student Jordan Toy analyzed various real world scenarios to estimate carbon dioxide emissions for a paper published in Transportation Research Part D.

Toy created a heat map to show carbon dioxide emission differences between drone and truck deliveries as a drone’s energy requirements, which are measured in watt-hours per mile and the number of stops on a route increase. Red areas reflect conditions in which drones emit less carbon dioxide than trucks (lighter packages, fewer stops), while blue areas denote conditions in which drones emit more (heavier packages, more stops).

In a nutshell, small, light packages are very environmentally friendly from a carbon emissions standpoint when delivered by drones, but once the delivery route adds more stops or runs farther out from the warehouse, it becomes less environmentally friendly.

Impact of drones on wildlife

But it’s not all about carbon pollution. There are other environmental factors at stake.

A 2015 study on black bears in Minnesota found that bears’ heart rates went up significantly when it was near a drone, despite not visibly acting bothered.

In one case, a drone flying overhead caused a bear’s heart rate to spike 400% from 39 to 162 beats a minute, said University of Minnesota’s Mark Ditmer . That’s well above the heart-beat jump experienced by people riding a double-corkscrew roller coaster, according to National Geographic.

Not to mention, drones have been known to agitate birds.

That being said, cars aren’t exactly friendly to animals. An estimated 1.25 million insurance claims are filed annually due to vehicle collisions with large animals, while building roads can cause habitat destruction or fragmentation.

It seems the consensus is that drone delivery could be useful for last-mile deliveries, helping a central warehouse get items out in 30 minutes or less to customers who live in the same city.

Or as Eng puts it: “Under certain circumstances, if one insists on drone delivery it may be most efficient to have a giant drone carrier hovering constantly above a city, similar to that seen in the Avengers movie franchise. Or not.”


3 underwater drones that are taking the drone industry to new depths

Thought drones were just for flying? These drones “fly,” but only underwater.

Ready-to-use out of the box, underwater drones are the latest trend to come out of the robotics community.  Instead of UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles), these drones are typically referred to as ROVs, which stands for remotely operated underwater vehicles.

These underwater drones are typically tethered (to keep them from swimming too far away from you as well as to transmit data) to your boat or somewhere (or someone on land). The drones have cameras, making them excellent tools for underwater photographers, people who need to inspect structures underwater, scientific researchers, and even tour boat companies that want to show guests the world beneath the boat.

Most of these drones operate like the consumer-level drones you’ll see on the market today, where it is controlled with an RC controller. Much like how the left stick controls altitude on an aerial drone, the left stick controls the depth of the drone in the water. The right stick controls the direction that the drone swims. A mobile app allows you to livestream what the drone sees directly through your smartphone or tablet.

Here are three underwater drones you need to know about, sorted by price — all of which cost $3,000 or less including camera:powerray powervision

  1. PowerRay by PowerVision:  The PowerRay drone, which starts at $1,488, can go as deep as about 100 feet underwater. The sonar system can detect objects up to an additional 130 meters below the robot, allowing users to detect objects up to about 230 feet below the surface. A cord attached to the drone prevents the drone from swimming off if the pilot loses control, and it can last about 4 hours on one charge. The PowerRay drone is the sister product of PowerVision’s aerial drone — the PowerEgg — which is (you guessed it) a flying drone in the shape of an egg. Continue reading 3 underwater drones that are taking the drone industry to new depths

Thought one drone was enough? Here’s what it takes to put dozens of them in the air

The following is an excerpt of a story originally written for Read the entire story here.

In an era where it seems that some pilots can barely control one drone, some companies want to operate dozens or even hundreds at a time.

Companies like Intel Alphabet’s Project Wing, Qualcomm and Disney are working on technology to make it possible for dozens and even hundreds of drones to fly together, operated by a single person. The drone industry calls them “swarm drones,” and you might have seen them operating in fireworks-style shows at Coachella or Walt Disney World, where hundreds of Intel drones flew over the skies of the famous entertainment spot. They most famously performed behind Lady Gaga in the Super Bowl.

You may have thought Intel’s drones flew over the Super Bowl. But due to complicated technological and legal hurdles, they were actually just superimposed on your TV.

But those drones weren’t actually performing behind Lady Gaga. The entire segment where drones created shapes of the American flag and Pepsi logos was actually prerecorded and superimposed on television so the drones wouldn’t have to do complex maneuvers over thousands of people in the stands and nearby.

That is the big issue for swarm drones, which could make specific tasks—including data gathering and delivery—more efficient, but are causing a legal and technical headache.

100 Intel drones fly at night as part of an outdoor flying drone light show syncopated to a live orchestra.

The Federal Aviation Administration won’t allow any aircraft to fly near stadiums during major sporting events for safety reasons, out of fear that two drones might accidentally collide and crash into a crowd.  Despite the hurdles involved in making swarm drones legally happen on a wide scale, companies are pioneering ways to use swarm drones to take over jobs too difficult or costly for humans.

One of those companies is sending swarm drones over desolate forests in the Pacific Northwest. Unlike Coachella’s drones, these aren’t supposed to be seen; instead they’re supposed to drop seeds into the ground and spray herbicides. They’re operated by DroneSeed, one of 15 companies with government approval to fly multiple drones at once. Continue reading Thought one drone was enough? Here’s what it takes to put dozens of them in the air

Drone identification: What we know about the FAA ARC plans so far

In the future, the Federal Aviation Administration could implement a system of remotely identifying drones while they’re in the air, as well as finding the pilot operating that drone.

Many suspect that the FAA could implement some sort of drone identification system similar to automotive license plates, which allow law enforcement to identify a vehicle’s owner without stopping the car. Others have suggested that the FAA could come out with a system that tracks or records the location of all drones in real time.

The FAA created a UAS Identification and Tracking Aviation Rulemaking Committee (sometimes referred to as ARC) to make proposals about the details of a drone identification and tracking system. The ARC group had its first series of meetings last week.

“During this initial meeting, the ARC considered issues such as existing regulations applicable to drone identification and tracking, air traffic management for drones, concerns and authorities of local law enforcement, and potential legal considerations,” according to a statement from the FAA. “The group developed some preliminary questions and identification parameters, and reviewed a sample of existing identification technologies.”

The group’s conversations could also lay the groundwork for future regulatory expansion around allowing drone flights over people and beyond line of site. Continue reading Drone identification: What we know about the FAA ARC plans so far

Drone delivery economics: are Amazon drones economically worth it?

Every day 110 million orders are placed online. 91% of those orders — 100 million of them — are less than 5 pounds. If just 1% of those were delivered by drones, that would be 1 million drone package deliveries per day.

That’s according to economic research firm Skylark Services, which is forecasting that the world will see 8 million operations per day within 20 years on the pessimistic end, and as many as 86 million package deliveries per day within 20 years on the optimistic end.

For a typical FedEx package that costs $8.50, the ground costs are approximately $2.72, according to Skylark Services. Amazon’s purported cost of last-mile delivery with USPS is $2.50. Hence, $2.50 becomes the benchmark for whether or not drone delivery is economically worth it.

Here’s how that cost breaks down, based on average data from 25 commercial drone operators:

  • Wholesale cost of an individual commercial-grade battery that can power a drone weighing up to five pounds and for at least 10 miles is $100 when purchased in bulk
  • Battery life for each commercial-grade battery is at least 250 hours
  • Cost of 4 motors that can lift a 10-pound drone that can travel at least 6 miles is less than $60 for each one and the motor can be expected to last for approximately 750 hours
  • Wholesale cost of a set of four commercial-grade rotors is $1
  • Marginal electricity costs to be approximately $.25 per trip

Coupled with the cost of other factors such as insurance and maintenace, Skylark estimates that the average cost of a flight is $0.94 per hour. Continue reading Drone delivery economics: are Amazon drones economically worth it?

Volunteers are using drones to monitor the impacts of El Nino on California’s coastline

As El Nino hits California, drones are heading into the air — documenting the impacts of the rainfall on California’s coastline.

DroneDeploy Orthomosaic Example
Courtesy of Eric Cheng

With El Nino comes surge in storms, coastal flooding and erosion. And the pace of shoreline change is rapidly speeding, meaning that the sea level rise and storms could destroy natural habitats and our own infrastructure. Drones can generate aerial data that documents those changes, allowing scientists to make decisions.

The Nature Conservancy launched a “Phones and Drones” project, giving any  volunteer with a drone the opportunity to help gather data about the coastal impacts of big storm events, with the purposes of improving predictive models and planning responses that protect people and nature. Effectively anyone with a drone can become a citizen scientist. Continue reading Volunteers are using drones to monitor the impacts of El Nino on California’s coastline

Drone delivery is here today: here’s how it works

This is an excerpt of a piece originally published for Read the entire story here.

On Sunday, hours before Cyber Monday, Inc. published a video starring TV host Jeremy Clarkson purporting to be from “the not-too-distant future” that showed how its drones could deliver a child’s soccer shoe within 30 minutes. “In time, there will be a whole family of Amazon drones,” Clarkson intoned.

When companies such as Amazon and Alphabet Inc.’s Google X unit talk about drone delivery as the next iteration of consumer retail technology, the response is sometimes a combination of incredulity and skepticism. But it’s already happening in some parts of the world — and there’s nothing magical about it.

Menlo Park, Calif.-based startup Matternet has been running drone deliveries of medical supplies and specimens in countries around the world, including Switzerland, Haiti and the Dominican Republic, since it was founded in 2011.

drone_1_21. Point of departure

A doctor needs to send a blood sample to a lab across the city for testing. Samples would be packed up and taken to a landing pad, possibly on the roof or courtyard of a hospital. Matternet’s landing pads need only a small yard or rooftop of clearance to take off.

Matternet’s drones can hold up to one kilogram (2.2 pounds) and transport items about 10 miles, traveling up to 40 mph, which is about standard for current drone technology. Including lift off and landing, a 10-mile journey should take about 18 minutes.

Read the rest of this story here.


FAA releases commercial drone cease and desist letters

The FAA released a series of documents to a man named Patrick McKay in response to his FOIA request for the cease and desist letters that were sent to commercial drone operators.

This site, as well as others including, has requested the same documentation, and the FAA is more than 7 months overdue in responding to those requests.

It’s unclear why the FAA responding to this particular request at this time.

The documents were posted by the recipient at

“The FAA has finally provided the first set of documents in response to a FOIA request I filed back in April 2013, requesting copies ‘of all records related to investigations and enforcement actions related to alleged violations of regulations, rules, policies, or advisory circulars by operators of unmanned aerial systems,’ McKay wrote. “After months of delays, excuses, and requesting extensions, they have provided copies of 17 cease and desist letters sent by various FAA regional offices to UAS operators in 2012 and 2013.” Continue reading FAA releases commercial drone cease and desist letters