E-Drone: Transforming the energy demand of supply chains through integrated UAV-to-land logistics for 2030

Lead Research Organisation: University of Southampton
Department Name: Sch of Engineering


Vans are the fastest-growing category of licensed road vehicle in the UK, significantly impacting on CO2 emissions. Vans performing service functions make up the large proportion of activity and, given the increasing access constraints imposed on freight vehicles by city authorities, alternative operating practices are being seriously investigated by logistics providers. Our proposed research into how Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) and land logistics systems can be combined and managed to create new services will provide fundamental new understanding into the impacts of regulation and operating criteria on the energy efficiency of mixed logistics fleets. UAVs are increasingly seen as a new mode to assist in last-mile logistics with pathology being seen as a realistic domain that could utilise UAVs on a commercial scale, to significantly reduce service times and emissions. With the NHS spending an estimated £2.5 billion annually on pathology logistics and with patient numbers rising, there is a need to re-think how logistics costs could be reduced along with energy demand whilst improving the bleed-to-diagnosis times for patients. The UAV global market is estimated to grow from $2 billion in 2016, to nearly $127 billion by 2020 and will have a significant impact on both controlled and uncontrolled airspace. The greatest barrier to UAV adoption into logistics fleets is the current lack of integration of UAVs within civil airspace which requires development of suitable air traffic rules. The true energy savings and overall viability of UAVs in this domain will only be realised when the regulations governing their use and the operational implications have been quantified through simulation.

AIM AND OBJECTIVES: Our research vision is to examine the energy reduction potential of logistics solutions involving UAVs operating alongside traditional and sustainable last-mile delivery solutions (vans, cargo cycles and walking porters via micro-consolidation points). This involves generating fundamental new understanding of how UAV operations will function in shared airspace alongside manned aircraft under various regulations. The project uses a case study based around NHS pathology sample transportation involving simulated and live trials across the Solent region to investigate this.
Our key research objectives are to:
Measurable objectives:
1) Investigate the collective transport and energy impacts of current 'business-as-usual' NHS pathology logistics across the Solent region.
2) Develop new simulation tools to quantify the energy consumption of UAVs and land logistics systems resulting from: i) potential new types of traffic regulation for shared airspace; ii) UAV collision and dynamic automated path re-planning stipulations; iii) conflict-resolution rules; iv) types of permitted coordination; v) the availability and positioning of ground logistics systems and infrastructure to effectively interact with and service UAVs.
3) Evaluate using the simulation tools and live trials the impact on air space and energy use of a large scale take-up of UAVs for medical logistics across the Solent region.
4) Develop fundamental new understandings of stakeholder concerns and the regulatory and governance needs associated with UAV interventions that realise energy benefits in logistics.
POTENTIAL APPLICATIONS AND BENEFITS: Our research outcomes will be trialled by Meachers Global Logistics and Steve Porter Transport as part of the project and will provide evidence of the tangible benefits to carriers from adopting UAVs into their logistics fleets. The project will provide evidence for UAV regulation and management policies for shared airspace, highlighted as a key requirement by the Department for Transport, the Civil Aviation Authority and NATS. It will also provide the first concrete evidence of the energy demand benefits of integrating UAVs with land logistics under real operating and regulatory conditions.

Planned Impact

Who will benefit from the project?

Those who will immediately benefit from the work are: i) Logistics providers; ii) Local Authority freight planners and traffic control centre managers attempting to manage the flow of freight vehicles through their urban centres; iii) Traffic management system designers and logistics optimisation software developers; iv) NATS and Airport managers; v) The NHS; vi) Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) developers; vii) Academics; and viii) The general public.

How will they benefit from the project?

Logistics operators - Meachers Global Logistics and Steve Porter Transport will be involved in trialling different UAV technologies. Key benefits are expected to arise from i) the ability to better respond to urgent consignor/consignee requests, ii) improved response times for client time-critical services, opening up new UAV markets, iii) understanding the cost implications of various land-to-UAV interfaces (including land-and-deliver, in-flight drop, via micro-consolidation point).
Local authorities - will benefit from a UK UAV logistics trial to help understand the wider implications of UAV adoption which would impact on local planning and transport regulations (landing site requirements, noise profiles, permissible flight corridors, landowner access polices). Cities in particular will benefit from reduced congestion which was estimated to cost drivers £7.9 billion in 2018, an average of £1,317 (178 lost hours) per driver. UAV developers - will gain a fundamental new understanding of how different regulations will impact on UAV performance which will influence design criteria, allowing consideration of issues such as actual flight paths, separation rules, collision avoidance and risk mitigation requirements as well as the effectiveness and energy efficiency of different UAV platforms in a variety of logistics scenarios.

Airports and Air traffic control authorities - will obtain new insight into how shared airspace can be best managed in the future to cater for different overflight rules, flight corridor heights, noise limits, landowner access polices, air space separation rules, UAV health monitoring policies, and weather forecasting impacting on flight planning.
The NHS - will realise opportunities to improve the effectiveness of public services and quality of life benefits for patients through: i) reduced logistics energy demand and costs leading to savings on the estimated £2.5 billion spent annually on pathology logistics; and ii) more even demand on laboratory staff through time-efficient deliveries of pathology products throughout the day and improved bleed-to-diagnosis times for patients.

System designers and software developers - looking to commercially develop energy optimisation strategies for UAV-to-land logistics will benefit from our approaches for integrating, modelling and visualising data sets taking into account multiple factors (e.g. airspace regulations and weather conditions) that will impact on UAV flight and energy consumption.

Academics - will gain fundamental new understandings in:
1) the key risks from shared UAV/manned airspace and the energy and cost implications on UAV systems of enforcing certain airspace regulations;
2) developing guidance for UAV manufacturers which consider actual flight paths, separation rules, collision avoidance and risk mitigation requirements;
3) how optimisation tools designed to minimise energy consumption can cater for multi-modal supply chains involving UAV-to-land logistics activities operating from fixed and mobile logistics infrastructure;
4) extending social science knowledge of autonomous vehicles with new understanding of people's responses to and interactions with UAVs.

The general public - will benefit through enhanced effectiveness of public services reducing overall traffic levels, energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions.


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