Could drones give your package a sustainable lift?

During the holiday shopping season last year, we posted a story comparing the sustainability of online shopping vs. a traditional trip to the mall. We found it’s difficult to determine which option is actually more sustainable, since a variety of factors are at play. But a new technology on the horizon could dramatically change this equation: drones.

Last week, the FAA opened the door for considering a more commercial use of drones by approving the testing of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), more commonly known as drones. While a number of issues involving drones would have to be overcome during the next few years before such an option becomes truly viable, the growing use of drones in the military has led some, like Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon.com, to dream of a more commercial use for this technology. But how might drones affect the environmental footprint of online shopping?

At first glance, it would seem drones are not very efficient. Right now, they can only carry a package of roughly 5 pounds to a location within a limited distance, while a delivery truck (which generally runs the same route every day) can carry hundreds at one time.

Additionally, cost is still a consideration. While a drone company executive has noted the cost for an Amazon Prime Air delivery could be around 2 cents, other estimates calculate costs double those of a delivery truck. So, as we found in our review last year, both sides often proclaim themselves the winner in these comparisons.

But consider the source – the source of generation, that is. While some drones are gas-powered, the Amazon drones are electric. They could conceivably be energized with fuel cells charged by renewable energy. The source could be solar, geothermal or wind, depending on the location of the distribution center. In this scenario, the last leg of delivery, from distribution center to consumer, could come at almost no cost and with arguably less environmental impact than an internal combustion engine. So, for small, single order packages, drones could offer a very energy-efficient mode of delivery.

There are other factors to consider besides just the energy used, such as the impact on birds and other wildlife. While that impact is unclear at this point, it’s interesting that drones are also being used to guard endangered animals. My assumption is a company like Amazon would choose altitudes and flight patterns or make adjustments to the drone itself to minimize any such impact.

Like most sustainable technologies, drones are unlikely to completely replace traditional delivery, but could be a better alternative in many delivery situations. Their future is promising, assuming their safety and viability can be established. And while I won’t be using them to have a refrigerator delivered anytime soon, it might not be too long before a drone drops The Brothers Karamazov off at my door.

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Posted on

May 1, 2014

About the Author

Jim Lyza

Jim Lyza

Jim designs and conducts one-on-one interviews and manages most focus group projects for our clients. He’s a gifted secondary researcher, seeking out invaluable information for marketing planning and strategy. He’s also our go-to for music recommendations.

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Suzanne Shelton

President and CEO

Suzanne is the voice and the vision of Shelton Group. Drawing on her extensive experience in energy and the environment – and 25+ years in the marketing and advertising industry – Suzanne provides high-level strategic insights for our clients and guidance for our research and creative departments. She regularly speaks at conferences around the country, including Sustainable Brands, Fortune Brainstorm E and the International Builders’ Show, and serves as a guest columnist for publications like Fast Company, Green Builder and GreenBiz.com.

Susannah Enkema

VP Research & Insight

Susannah directs our research team and plays a key role in extracting the nuggets of information that pave the way for recommended marketing strategies and creative approaches. Susannah has nearly two decades of market research and strategy experience, including her role as president of SE Consulting, where she led the services for the likes of DIY Network and the makers of GORE-TEX®.

Penny Kemp

VP Account Management & Strategy

Penny leads our client engagement process, overseeing activities from both a strategic and a tactical level to ensure our work generates desired results. She works closely with Suzanne, President & CEO, to develop strategic marketing plans and with Matt, VP Creative, to foster creative campaign ideas. Before joining Shelton Group, Penny had developed expertise in brand management and marketing while working with award-winning agencies and shepherding programs for the likes of Ritz-Carlton Hotels, Russell Athletic and James Hardie Building Products.

Matt Brass

VP Creative

Matt steers the creative department in concepting, designing and producing campaigns. He ensures sound strategy and deep insights inform everything his team develops, and works closely with the accounts department to ensure copy and designs will meet our clients’ goals. As a designer and filmmaker himself, he’s also a principal contributor to all of Shelton’s in-house photography and videography work.

Glen L. Vesser III

VP Finance and Administration

Glen manages Shelton Group’s finances and administration, ensuring our internal systems run smoothly so we can provide exceptional client service in a seamless and timely manner. Glen’s financial and administrative expertise has been shaped by decades of experience in a variety of industries, including public accounting, media distribution and health care.

Mike Beamer

VP Business Development

Mike joined our team to help provide strategic vision and foster our agency’s growth by overseeing new business leads and managing agency marketing and website content. He arrived in Knoxville steeped in energy efficiency and renewables – he previously led client service for an agency division in Boston dedicated to marketing communications strategy and branding for B2B and B2C clients in that space.