Drones (the good kind)

It’s now pretty clear that renewables can replace fossil fuels in their main uses, electricity generation and land transport, at a very modest cost or, as appears to be the case for electricity, with a cost saving. But that still leaves room for doubt over whether the economy can be fully decarbonized in time to hold CO2 concentrations to 450 ppm or below. Among the big gaps are air and sea transport.

I’ve tended to argue on the basis of the idea of induced innovation that, since there are plenty of possible options, at least one will work out, given some incentives to reduce CO2 emissions. That’s proved true for electricity (solar and PV worked, while other promising contenders like geothermal and Gen III nuclear haven’t), and more recently for storage. But it doesn’t seem to satisfy everyone.

So, I was struck to realize that drones (which I’ve always thought of either as toys or as particularly nasty weapons systems) may be on the way to displacing a good deal of air and sea freight transport in the relatively near future. Initially at least, the bigger ones are likely to use conventional engines, but with greatly reduced fuel costs, as with this proposal. But it’s easy to imagine a version that carries its own solar PV system being developed in the future – possibly slower but even cheaper than the current verison.

Moreover, the size and capacity of battery-driven electric drones is increasing all the time. The current leader appears to be the Griff 300, which can (as the name indicates) lift 300kg, including its own weight of about 65 kg. Apparently there is a Griff 800 either released or in the works. At least to my understanding, there’s no fundamental scaling limit here, although there will obviously be plenty of technical challenges. On the other hand, with batteries getting lighter every year, performance can be improved over time without any significant change in design.

None of this deals with passenger air travel which looms larger in the culture wars over energy policy that its objective significance as a source of emissions justifies. But again, in the absence of fundamental limits (the kind that apply, for example, to carbon capture and storage), a sufficiently strong incentive will in all probability bring forth a solution.

38 thoughts on “Drones (the good kind)

  1. There have been plenty of suggestions for non-biological sequestration of CO2 directly from the atmosphere. For example, extremely reliable katabatic winds in Antarctica could be used to generate electricity that is then used to freeze CO2 out of the atmosphere which is stored as dry ice in giant pits or a convenient valley and kept solid with a steady trickle of liquid nitrogen.

    But, I have never seen a serious suggestion that can compete on cost with biological methods. This doesn’t mean they never will, but I’m not optimistic about it happening any time soon.

    Of course, there is over lap between the two. CO2 from fermentation could potentially be stored geologically or converted into carbon ash via the application of very large amounts of energy.

  2. @Jim Birch

    I won’t argue with your numbers, but in practical terms 10 years ago it cost around $1500 to ship a container from Japan to Australia, and over half that cost was wharf handling, local transport, brokerage and other admin fees and government charges. The cost is so small that they ship frozen fish from Scotland to China and then back after processing to save money on wages – and are still ahead.

  3. @Peter T
    Shipping has up to now had a free pass on its carbon emissions, and on air pollution from tunning marine diesels in port. The comparison with alternatives should be made using a virtual carbon price, say $100 a tonne. I suspect that shipping in containers would still win, but less dramatically than now.

  4. @Moz of Yarramulla
    It depends what you mean by ‘soon’. Climate mitigation policy already assumes a time horizon of 30-50 years. The Adanis plan to have their mine producing for 70. I don’t see any innovation making serious inroads for at least a decade. No doubt it would start in areas and for applications where it could operate despite legacy technologies in the first instance.

    I really don’t think I have to solve all the engineering issues in order to make the argument. This is the same nonsensical line followed by the nuclear lobbyists wrt renewables – every conceivable engineering problem apparently has to be solved before you can begin to consider alternatives. The main issue, surely, is that zeppelins require no energy whatever to remain aloft, whereas other technologies use vast amounts of energy to do just that. Hovering with a dirigible is in principle easy and cheap. The engines fail on a heavier-than-air craft and it crashes to the ground at the speed of a high category cyclone. Engines fail on a zeppelin and it drifts along relatively harmlessly. Surely they’ll be bigger than equivalent trucks, but then trucks operate on two dimensional surfaces while aircraft operate in three – much more space.

    Your concerns re power lines etc I’ve addressed earlier. I’m assuming these technological relics will cease to be the problem you believe they always will be, just as the pressing need for motor vehicles to avoid frightening horses ceased to be a major issue on our roads in another era.

  5. Hydrogen fuelled jet engines are another interesting possibility, though a quick google shows aviation industry interest fell away about 5 or so years ago, due to issues with the lower energy density of liquid hydrogen, and the cost of producing hydrogen (primarily from traditional fossil fuels). Falling renewable energy costs, together with a tax disincentive on fossil fuels in future, could renew interest in the possibility of hydrogen electrolysis from (sea)water, perhaps. It’s at least a technically feasible solution.

    There were also some interesting pilot projects using sails (more like high altitude kites) on modern cargo ships, which seemed to be achieving large fuel economies. But that seems to have died away too.

  6. I probably should mention that high speed rail can substitute for flight. This includes various vactrain proposals such as the Tesla Hyperloop or the Edison Sucktube.

    But there is no need for fancy vacuum trains. Just a fast train can be faster than a plane on account of how trains take people to where they want to go while planes take people to airports.

  7. The marginal cost of batteries is now low enough for them to replace petrol, diesel and LPG for most private car use. While it costs a huge amount of money for LG Chem, Panasonic, and others to set up their massive automated production lines, the cost per cell is reasonably low and quality is continuing to improve. This means reduced demand for oil. New car sales in Norway are already 30% electric. The majority of that 30% are all electric with the rest being plug in hybrids.

    It doesn’t take much of a contraction in demand to crash oil prices, So with an oil price that may be $10 a barrel or less, aviation is probably going to continue to use kerosene derived from oil and if they are required to they will offset CO2 emissions by investing in renewable energy to begin with and later by directly removing CO2 from the atmosphere.

    It will probably be a cheaper option to use kerosene and then grow biomass and sequester the carbon in it than it will be to grow biomass and then turn that biomass into aviation biofuel, at least in the short to medium term.

    Note we may see one more big run up in oil prices due to the fall off in investment in new wells before expanding electric car use drops demand and prices. I am not predicting permanently low oil prices from now on.

  8. @Tim Macknay

    Machine design becomes so rational without the need to cater to superfluous humans. Skynet will soon realise this. 😉

    More seriously, unemployment on a scale never seen before will soon become the norm. Imagine a world where all drivers, captains and crews on land, sea and in the air are no longer necessary. This cannot be more than twenty years away for most applications and ten years for some.

    I can see the day arrive when robots will replace the trades. Today’s overpaid, under-skilled tradespeople are likely to be the last generation of their kind.

    This all raises the issue (and J.Q. has raised it) of how do people live with no income? Unless guaranteed and inalienable ownership rights to a certain amount of social and machine production come with citizenship itself, then we will see the most unequal society in history. Of course, the elites might decide the masses are unnecessary at all, which in a sense we would be. Are there any good depopulation conspiracy theories doing the rounds these days?

  9. @James Wimberley

    Shipping has an enormous efficiency advantage relative to any other mode of transport. Any carbon price that affected shipping would affect other modes more – and air most of all.

  10. Peter T, rail can beat shipping on energy per tonne-kilometer if it takes a shorter route. I also think it would be less affected by a carbon price, given the horribly low efficiency of most existing ship engines. But air freight does use about 35 times as much energy as rail or sea transport per tonne-kilometer, so that is quite a difference.

  11. Yeah, the first sentence of my previous comment doesn’t actually make sense, but I am confident people will understand what I was trying to say.

  12. Peter T, modern commercial flight averages about 3l/100km per passenger – much more CO2 efficient than cars. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fuel_economy_in_aircraft .

    As the article notes, modern planes are about twice as fuel efficient as the first commercial jets (and about five times as efficient as Concorde). Price signals take time to work (long run elasticities are generally much larger than short run ones) but they do work.

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