Drone delivery will keep your planet clean (and your inner child happy)

When I was a kid, I believed that I’ll see flying cars and teleportation as a grown-up adult. I would not say that I’m disappointed by my Swapfiets subscription, but my inner child certainly suffered along the way.

Then I co-founded IONA, a delivery service company that uses a decentralized network of autonomous drones and hubs to make logistics in low-density areas cost-effective, qualitative and sustainable.

I learned a lot on this journey, on things that I didn’t know and things that I thought I knew. Today is about sharing unexpected findings.

Disclosure: I will stay very basic so you won’t see any complex calculation here (I know you’re disappointed). I’ll just explain the logic so the only things you have to know are:

  • weight influences energy consumption (to move something but also to build it)
  • energy consumption impacts CO2 emissions (renewable or not)
  • money can be considered as “stored calories” (/energy)

How to measure efficiency?

In aerospace, the payload fraction is a term used to qualify the efficiency of a design. It’s simply the ratio between the weight of a payload and the gross weight of the vehicle at take-off. The efficiency of rockets is often 30/1 to 40/1, which says that for 30–40 tons (T) of rocket you’ll have 1T of payload.

I’d like you to keep that principle in mind for other classes of vehicles because it’s an interesting ratio. Of course, it wouldn’t make sense to compare a spacecraft to a lorry, as lifting a payload off the ground is different from towing or carrying it on wheels, but between similar vehicles, this efficiency ratio does convey interesting insights.

I said “basic”, I deliver.

At a macro level, the energy our society dedicates to moving goods will define how energy-intensive our economy is, which has a major impact on profits and sustainability no matter how the energy is produced (e.g. think about the impact of petrol or electricity price fluctuations on the S&P500).

How efficient are traditional vehicles?

In logistics, we distinguish Heavy Goods Vehicles (HGV), like lorries, and Light Goods Vehicles (LGV), such as vans or three-wheelers.

  • The maximum weight for a vehicle in the UK/Europe is 44T (“Multi-Axle Articulated Lorry” or “Artic”) and it can carry up to 24T of payload. It’s slightly better than a 1.8 ratio. For every 1.8kg of mass, you’ll have 1kg of payload.
  • A large van, such as the Fiat Ducato or Peugeot Boxer will have a total weight of about 4.1T for a carried payload of 1.1T, considering the weight of the driver the ratio is about 3.7. For every 3.7kg of mass, you’ll have 1kg of payload.
  • A small van like the Renault Kangoo will carry 600kg for a 2.2T total weight, switching the driver’s mass on the other side (not “used payload”) the ratio is about 4.2. For every 4.2kg of mass, you’ll have 1kg of payload.

You can see some kind of a trend, right? Let’s continue.

In the UK, it’s rare to see delivery vehicles smaller than vans because most logistics companies are no longer using motorcycles (weather?), but lately, Royal Mail invested in new electric three-wheelers for residential areas.

  • The Paxster Cargo bought by Royal Mail is an electric three-wheeler that weights 605kg (including the driver) for a max payload of 240kg meaning a ratio of 3.5. For every 3.5kg of mass, you’ll have 1kg of payload.
  • A Yamaha Neos 50cc (used by La Poste in France) has a gross weight of 78kg and can carry between 80–120kg if you’re not on a San Francisco hill, so after having switched the driver’s weight it represents a payload capacity of 25kg on average which gives a ratio at 8. For every 8kg of mass, you’ll have 1kg of payload.

So why aren’t we all use 44T if they are so efficient?

Well, you would have guessed it: a smaller vehicle fully loaded is much more efficient than a half-empty 44T. If you were transporting 250kg of goods in a 22T lorry, the new ratio would be 88 i.e. for every 88kg of mass, you’ll have 1kg of payload. Weirdly, people rarely decide to ship their entire house by mail every Sunday, so there was a window for smaller alternatives.

Unfortunately, as we’ve seen, the smaller the vehicle the less efficient the design is! It’s much more complex than that but two major reasons:

  • The weight of the driver and other non-payload elements (controls, safety features, seats etc…) is “amortized”, as a 100kg among 10T (1% of the mass) is not much compared to a 100kg in 1T (10% of the mass).
  • Trade-offs. any vehicle has an optimum depending and what it has been made for. A big airliner is often said to have a distance optimum of around 3,000km, which means that going further will require an additional weight of kerosene that will lower the efficiency when going closer would not fully amortize take-offs and landings (the most energy-requiring segments). For thermic and electric, the capacity of the fuel tank/size of the battery, or the way it will be used are similar types of trade-off (thermic engines consume a lot when accelerating or breaking when electric engines can empty a battery in minutes at high speeds).

To sum up, to transport something from Brazil to the UK, the most efficient will be a containership. Then from the harbour to a major warehouse inland, a 44T lorry.

Then from this major warehouse to smaller warehouses/collection points or to people, you could use a van but what would be the best solution if you don’t have many parcels and/or if the delivery points are scattered?

Be green, use drones

Most drones can usually carry 1/6 to 1/3 of their take-off weight as payload. It will IMMENSELY depend on what are you trying to achieve. For the past 10 years, the major industry for such drones has been film-making: hovering around is different than delivering.

At IONA, our Beetle (First-Gen Drone) can carry 7–10kg with a total weight of 22–24kg so a ratio of around 2.5. Is it more efficient than a three-wheeler? Not necessarily, as we previously said we can’t compare lifting a payload with carrying one. However, is it more efficient than a half-empty three-wheeler in a low-density area? Most likely.

Tell me where the battle is

In 2020, the average UK citizen had 74 parcels delivered, so in a community of 500 residents, it would represent 37,000 parcels per year. Contrary to what is commonly believed, rural customers -for those who can get delivered- order more on delivery, often because less is available around especially for drugs, books or repairs. But let’s keep these numbers.

Considering that on average 75% of the parcels are under 2kg (categorized small), it’s 27,750 parcels or an equivalent of 76 parcels per day. At exactly 2kg per parcel, it would be 152kg of mass delivered per day, but because most parcels are around 1kg the average mass is likely closer to 80–100kg.

  • A three-wheeler needs one journey half-empty (100/240), for a total of 705kg moved.
  • A van needs one journey at 1/6th of its capacity (100/600), for a total of 1,700kg moved.
  • An IONA Beetle can move 100kg to destination with several journeys at full capacity, considering multiple drops in a 10km radius range area it would represent moving about 300kg of mass total (including structure)

Now, as we explained before, lifting 300kg off the ground must require a lot of energy, maybe more than moving 1.7T on wheels (as the alternative in rural areas would be a van)?

No, it’s not.

And far from it! Because the drone can deliver the 76 parcels in less than 4h when the van will need an entire day. The shorter route between 2 points is a straight line, and on top of that, a drone is much more modular in its delivery structure (payload and journeys). Our example doesn’t take into account scattered delivery points that are usually around the main hub (e.g. post office) and not following a linear direction, for which a van has to carry its structural weight for miles and miles (1.6T empty, as a reminder).

Our IONA Beetle operates amazingly well in environments where other vehicles are slow and oversized. Using drones for rural logistics is cost-efficient, sustainable and much faster.

One more thing…

Do you know what’s the biggest nightmare traditional logistic companies have when it’s not last-mile delivery in a low-density area? Reverse logistics and failed deliveries.

  • 20–55% of the parcels are returned, while the routes are “optimized” (as much as they possibly can) for one-ways only doing multiple drops
  • 10–15% of the parcels need re-deliveries, which is basically carrying the parcel on the way back then re-do the most expensive part of the journey (last-mile)

For a drone, the first point doesn’t make any difference as last-mile delivery and first-mile collection are the same segment flown in reverse, and for the second point, you can schedule a drone delivery for when people are home, or re-deliver automatically the same way you would snooze you alarm clock in the morning (because we all do).

Did I tell you that because we are not using drones, many rural areas in Europe can’t get delivered or pay insane delivery surcharges for it?

No? Next time then.

Access to efficient delivery systems plays a major role in local development, and it’s a growing need. On average, households with access to delivery save £600 per year, while having much more qualitative products to choose from. Especially post-covid, we must realize the impact the lack of efficient logistics has in rural areas. It should be seen as important as giving access to the internet in every region: an obligation to offer the same opportunities to everyone.

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Etienne Louvet — CEO & Co-Founder IONA

Let’s connect! We’re looking for:

  • Investors => contact@ionadrones.com (EIS Scheme Open)
  • Testimonies and partnership if you’d like us to operate where you are!
  • Autonomous Flight Engineer (HIRING)
  • Any kind of feedback, we are always open to coffee chats

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Cleantech entrepreneur, sports addict, books lover, and part-time backpacker 🌏 #startup #sustainability #books

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Etienne Louvet-de Verchère

Etienne Louvet-de Verchère

Cleantech entrepreneur, sports addict, books lover, and part-time backpacker 🌏 #startup #sustainability #books

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