In the quest to make the food system more sustainable, drones enter the chat. Are they a viable tool in reducing emissions?
While drones have only risen to popularity in recent years, the first pilotless vehicles go way back. Hardly the drones we know today, but in 1849, Austria attacked Venice with hundreds of unmanned balloons filled with explosives.
In 1917, during the First World War, Britain tested an aircraft called the Aerial Target — a small radio-controlled aircraft. A year later, the U.S. would test an aerial torpedo, although neither played any major role in the war.
Over the next century droned would continue to be tested, primarily by military operations. By the 1990s, drones would play critical roles in military operations, leading to the DIY drones common today.
And as technology continues to play an increasingly important role in reshaping our daily lives, the use of drones is also revolutionizing various industries — from conservation to commerce.
Amazon Prime Air
Last year, Amazon Prime Air received permission from the Federal Communications Commission for a two-year test of delivery drones, after first announcing plans to explore the tech in 2013. At the time, Amazon expected to be using drones within five years, but the green light only came in 2022. It began testing drone service in Lockeford, California, as well as Texas.
According to Amazon, not all drone systems are equal. “For example, most drones do not have the capability to sense and avoid other aircraft and obstacles — and it’s easy to understand why that could pose problems,” read last year’s blog post announcing the test markets.
“Those systems will require visual observers along the route of every flight to help the drones avoid hazards. That type of drone can be deployed relatively quickly, but it limits delivery operations to a small radius.”
Amazon says it’s building something different. “We’ve created a sophisticated and industry-leading sense-and-avoid system that will enable operations without visual observers and allow our drone to operate at greater distances while safely and reliably avoiding other aircraft, people, pets, and obstacles,” it said.
Sustainability in the food system
The technology is also coming to the food and beverage sector — not only in increasing efficiency in the production and delivery processes, but it is also contributing to the creation of a sustainable food system.
The timing couldn’t be more urgent; the food system is one of the biggest contributors to climate change — from animal agriculture to food waste, getting a grip on emissions can’t happen without wrangling in the food sector.
According to the United Nations, about a third of all human-caused greenhouse gas emissions are linked to the food system. Animal agriculture is responsible for about 60 percent of those emissions; food waste, about 8 percent.
And while food emissions are high, transport is even higher; in 2019, transportation accounted for 33 percent of U.S. emissions.
According to a 2020 Deloitte study, emissions were 84 percent lower for drones making deliveries than those in diesel-powered trucks. Drones consume significantly less energy per parcel than trucks, about 94 percent less.
Farming with drones
Diageo, the producer of Don Julio and Casamigos tequilas, has recently introduced the use of drones on its agave farms in Jalisco, Mexico, following a successful pilot conducted in 2022.
The implementation of drones in agave farming allows the company to build data on agave plants, which in turn drives better farming decisions, reduces water and fertilizer use, and decreases carbon emissions.
“As the demand for tequila continues to grow, we want to be able to increase our farming efficiency, but in a way that is also kind to the planet,” Ewan Andrew, Chief Sustainability Officer, said in a statement. “This initiative is a perfect example of the two coming together. It’s an exciting way in which we’re using technological innovation to boost production, upskill our famers, and help us to meet our 2030 sustainability goals.”
The drones work in partnership to collect data on agave plants and identify when they need support. They then dispense the required amount of a unique water fertilizer mix, contributing to the continued growth of Diageo’s tequila business and progress toward the company’s ESG action plan. This initiative is a prime example of how technological innovation can not only boost production and upskill farmers but also help companies meet their sustainability goals.
“We’re incredibly proud to be pioneering the use of drones across our agave farming, to improve efficiency in our agriculture operations while leading our industry innovation and technology adoption,” said Wellington Pauperio, Director for Supply Tequila & Mezcal at Diageo.
“This initiative also brings additional capabilities for our team, new opportunities for personnel in the communities we operate, and contributes to a more sustainable world by reducing the use of resources including water mix across our plantations. It has been a great cross-team collaboration for us to reach this point, and the results are speaking for themselves as we look into a better future.”
Like Amazon’s ambitions, drones have also found their way into the food delivery industry, as demonstrated by Flyby Robotics, an end-to-end drone automation and delivery company. Flyby Robotics recently raised $4M in Pre-Seed investment funding and announced a series of active partnerships with food retailers and innovative snack brands across the U.S. The company aims to unlock the labor-saving potential of UAV technology for every merchant, making delivery methods faster and more affordable than car-based courier systems.
Flyby’s partnerships with food retailers include Nekter Juice Bar, MAD Greens, Tokyo Joe’s, and Popadelics. Customers can order drone delivery for just $3 and experience delivery times averaging under 4 minutes. The use of drone delivery services can be seen as a paradigm shift in food delivery, enabling customers to connect more easily with local restaurants and receive their fresh food faster.
Flyby says the new funding will be used for product development, with the goal of achieving Level 4 autonomy for its flight systems. At Level 4 autonomy, drones will operate without any human intervention throughout the delivery process but will allow a pilot in a remote command center the option to manually override in rare circumstances. This advancement in drone technology is expected to transform retail over the next five years.
“You don’t have to be a multibillion-dollar corporation or a global military superpower to reap the economic benefits of autonomous drones,” Jason Lu, Founder and CEO of Flyby Robotics, said in a statement. “Our AI-powered autonomous systems allow any merchant to dramatically reduce the cost of delivery to their customers.”
Both Diageo’s implementation of drones in agave farming and Flyby Robotics’ use of drones in food delivery highlight the potential drone technology could have on bringing more sustainability into the food system. By optimizing resource allocation, reducing waste, and minimizing carbon emissions, drones are playing a crucial role in creating a more sustainable future for the food and beverage industry.
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