Supply Chains and Transportation

Autonomous drone networks are a faster route to sustainable supply chains

Flight operators perform checks on a delivery drone in Ghana.

Flight operators perform checks on a delivery drone in Ghana. Image: Reuters

Edward Fu
Director, Global Policy Development and Policy Counsel, Zipline
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This article is part of: Forum COP26 Live
  • New forms of infrastructure are needed to relieve over-burdened and unsustainable supply chains.
  • In Rwanda and Virginia, US, drone-based logistics networks have proved their efficiency and sustainability.
  • Using drones alongside existing logistics system will increase supply chain resiliency.

The combination of the COVID-19 pandemic and worsening climate change have strained supply chains past their breaking point, and the challenge of resiliency and access to life-critical goods is more important than ever. Supply chains all over the world are failing under the weight of increasing demand, limiting access to goods and services. And as customers increasingly expect on-demand, next-day or same-day delivery, our existing ground vehicle-based logistics network is growing increasingly inefficient and unsustainable. Investment in new forms of resilient and sustainable infrastructure is critical to the long-term success of global logistics.

Today, we can invest in sustainable, long-term infrastructure that requires no additional roads, embraces green spaces and brings massive reductions in carbon emissions. These benefits aren’t hypothetical or futuristic: Drone logistics companies are already moving goods around the world, providing on-demand, just-in-time access, while imposing a fraction of the carbon footprint of a ground-based network.

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We’ll examine two: Rwanda and Virginia, US, both of which benefit from drone logistics networks operated by two leading companies in the field, Zipline and Wing, who have made 200,000 and 100,000 commercial deliveries respectively.

Rwanda

In Rwanda, Zipline recently celebrated its fifth year anniversary during which it has made 200,000 deliveries of blood, vaccines and other medical products to rural hospitals and clinics. As part of their five-year review, the company performed a sustainability analysis of its delivery emissions, the first of its kind leveraging real-world customer and order data. These deliveries, many of which are emergency, on-demand requests for medical products, resulted in a:

  • 99% reduction in carbon emissions compared to using vans
  • 98% reduction in carbon emissions compared to using cars
  • 94% reduction in carbon emissions compared to using electric vehicles
Using drones for delivery is more sustainable than many other means of transport
Using drones for delivery is more sustainable than many other means of transport. Image: Zipline

Zipline’s methodology is described in greater detail here. In short, had these deliveries been performed by vehicles, not only would such a supply chain be significantly slower and less resilient, but they would also have been orders of a less sustainable magnitude. Not only are drone deliveries improving health outcomes by ensuring rapid delivery of essential medical products to rural areas, but they’re also helping save the environment.

Virginia, US

In Christiansburg, Virginia, Wing has been delivering products to residences by drone for two years. An economic report published by the Virginia Tech Office of Economic Development in September 2020 indicated that enabling such drone delivery in a single US metropolitan area would:

  • Avoid up to 294 million miles per year in road use and up to 580 car crashes per year.
  • Take the equivalent of 25,000 cars off the road, reducing carbon emissions by up to 113,900 tonnes per year.
  • Enjoy the carbon emissions reduction equivalent of planting 46,000 acres per year of new forest.

It is no surprise, then, that in surveying Christiansburg residents, Virginia Tech found that 87% approved of drone operations. Not only was the community receiving their deliveries in a far more convenient way than before, but they were making a significant impact on the environment by taking cars off the road, reducing congestion and substantially cutting carbon emissions.

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Route one to sustainability

Both Zipline and Virginia Tech cite similar reasons for why drone logistics have such a massive sustainability impact:

  • Electrification. Electrifying ground-based deliveries is hard and often requires the costly replacement of thousands of vans and cars. Adopting an electric aerial medical supply chain allows all of those deliveries to be instantly electrified.
  • More efficient routing. Drones can fly in a near-direct path to their delivery site, substantially reducing the distance required. Not only does this make deliveries faster and more reliable, but it also substantially reduces carbon emissions.
  • Minimal energy use. Drones require orders of magnitude less energy than electric cars. For example, even if Zipline had only used electric vehicles to carry out its deliveries, it would have increased carbon emissions by nearly 30 times, while placing a significantly greater strain on the electrical grid. As Wing put it: “It takes more energy for you to boil pasta on your stove than it does for us to deliver you a box of pasta.”
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What is the World Economic Forum doing on drones

Of course, not all logistics can be handled by drone. But it’s clear that drones have a critical role to play in our supply chain to drive sustainability and resiliency. The ideal, optimized 21st-century supply chain will require a mixture of drones, trains, trucks and ships; by integrating Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies, we can bring about a transformative impact on the ecological and societal resiliency of our global logistics at a time when our supply chains most need it.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

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Supply Chains and TransportationClimate Action
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