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A drone flying in Los Angeles. Photo: Ronen Tivony / NurPhoto via Getty Images

A new study in Nature concludes that using battery-powered drones for consumer package deliveries can be more climate-friendly than diesel trucks under certain circumstances.

Why it matters: The analysis of greenhouse gas emissions from competing delivery methods comes as corporate giants like Amazon, Google and UPS are exploring use of drones.

What they did: The article modeled total emissions under different drone sizes; package weights, transportation fuels for ground-based deliveries, energy needs for additional warehousing to support increased drone use, and—crucially—the electricity source in the regions modeled.

They compared estimated emissions from trips in California—where natural gas, renewables and nuclear energy provide the electricity mix—to deliveries in Missouri, where coal is the dominant power source.

Expand chart
Adapted from Stolaroff et al., 2018. "Energy use and life cycle greenhouse gas emissions of drones for commercial package delivery", Nature; Chart: Axios Visuals

What they found: Deliveries with small drones used to carry lighter packages (they modeled 0.5 kilograms) have substantially lower greenhouse gas emissions compared to ground-based diesel freight.

  • It's 54 percent lower than using diesel trucks in California, and 23 percent lower in Missouri.

For larger drones carrying heavier packages (they modeled 8 kg), the gain is harder to achieve—the climate advantage is only evident in a low-carbon power mix, and even there, electric trucks and vans are better options.

  • “If you want to get an environmental benefit from drone delivery, you have to consider the whole system and the whole lifecycle. Looking at any one piece of the picture won’t give you the right answer,” co-author Joshuah Stolaroff of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory tells Axios.

Go deeper: Stolaroff said regulators and companies have a chance to ensure that use of drones for package delivery occurs in an environmentally beneficial way.

  • “There is a rare opportunity to understand the impacts of a technology before it is widely deployed,” he said.
  • “It is maybe a quirk of air traffic being so regulated that we actually have some time here to decide how this system should look before we put it on the market,” Stolaroff said.

Bottom line: Regulators should consider limits on drone and package size, while his advice for companies in the emerging drone delivery space is that "the easiest thing is to make sure your drones are charged with low-carbon electricity," concluded Stolaroff.

Go deeper

White House now says Biden will move to increase refugee cap in May

Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The White House on Friday afternoon said President Biden plans to lift the Trump-era refugee cap by May 15.

Driving the news: The announcement follows stinging criticism from several Democrats and rights groups, who said Biden was walking back on his pledge to raise the limit. Earlier Friday, Biden had signed a directive to speed up the processing of refugees, but he kept the Trump administration's historically low cap of 15,000 refugees for this year.

Suspect in FedEx shooting identified as 19-year-old former employee Brandon Hole

Crime scene investigators walk through the FedEx parking lot in Indianapolis the day after a mass shooting left nine dead, including the gunman, who took his own life. Photo: Jeff Dean/AFP via Getty Images.

The suspected gunman who killed at least eight people and wounded several others in Indianapolis before killing himself has been identified by local police as 19-year-old Brandon Hole, a former FedEx employee, a company spokesperson told the AP.

The latest: At least 100 people were in the FedEx warehouse at the time of the shooting, authorities said Friday. Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department Deputy Chief Craig McCartt told reporters that Hole worked at FedEx through 2020. He did not specify the circumstances of Hole’s departure.

The legacy of Bernie Madoff

Bernie Madoff, architect of the largest Ponzi scheme in American history, died on Wednesday in federal prison, 11 years into his 150-year sentence.

Axios Re:Cap digs into Madoff’s crimes, what they revealed about America's financial system and what changed after the scheme came crashing down with Diana B. Henriques, author of the The Wizard of Lies: Bernie Madoff and the Death of Trust.