Modeling the Sustainability of Small Unmanned Aerial Vehicles Technologies

Miguel Andres Figliozzi, Portland State University


In the past decade, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) have become increasingly more popular in the commercial sector. Drones are being used for all kinds of purposes, such as surveillance, inspecting architecture, filming, wildlife research, and more. Freight delivery is a potential application that is getting lots of attention from large companies. 

This research, funded by the FMRI (Freight Modeling Research Institute) at PSU, presented novel data, relationship, and models for deliveries utilizing small UAVs. Small UAVs were defined as aircrafts with a tare of up to 15 kilograms (kg) and a potential payload of up to 15 kg. Since the weight of the UAVs is capped, only drones with engines that are electric were included; noise and pollution problems are likely to hinder urban deployments of internal combustion engines. Internal combustion engines are mostly used in larger UAVs. The scope of the search was limited to multicopter drones that can potentially deliver in both urban and rural areas. Fixed-wing drones were excluded from the search because currently only copters have the capability of hovering and delivering products in tight spaces (required in urban areas); fixed-wing UAVs typically cannot land or take off vertically. Single copters can hover similarly to helicopters, but were not included in the search because these aircrafts tend to be larger, and the size of the propeller and blade made them unsafe for areas without a large. Multicopters or multi-rotor drones can hover but also have higher stability and maneuverability, which makes them more suitable for navigating tight spaces or flying near humans and/or valuable property. The survey of currently available UAVs shows that payload, size, energy consumption, and cost are positively correlated and tend to increase together. Unfortunately, potential safety, noise, and last-yard constraints also increase as drone capabilities and size increase. Cost metrics such as cost per flying hour (CPFH) are the most relevant for small UAVs since they readily take into account the impact of operator labor cost and utilization, clearly the largest cost components. The economic analysis indicates that labor/staff costs can range between 30% and 85% of UAV costs per flying hour. The impact of labor costs will be highly dependent on future regulations and the level of automation of the last-mile delivery process. A novel analysis of lifecycle UAV and ground commercial vehicles’ CO2e emissions is presented. Different route and customer configurations are modeled analytically. Utilizing real-word data, tradeoffs and comparative advantages of UAVs are discussed. Breakeven points for operational emissions are obtained and the results clearly indicate that UAVs are more CO2e efficient for small payloads than conventional diesel vans on a per-distance basis. Drastically different results are obtained when customers can be grouped in a delivery route. UAV deliveries are not more CO2e efficient than tricycle or electric van delivery services if a few customers can be grouped in a route. Vehicle phase CO2e emissions for UAVs are significant and must be taken into account. Ground vehicles are more efficient when comparing vehicles’ production and disposal emissions per delivery. Currently available UAV technology can fill a delivery service niche in sparsely populated areas with low numbers of customers and density. In rural areas, the regulatory landscape and last-yard delivery constraints are also more relaxed. In rural areas, the economic benefit brought about by

Project Details

Project Type:
Project Status:
End Date:
December 01,2019
UTC Grant Cycle:
non-UTC project