Drone – transport – a cost-benefit analysis

Drone-based shipping has been described as a cost-efficient way of handling last-mile transport of various services. Within the field of medical requests and first responder activities, this topic has been discussed in numerous papers. However, what demands are put on the systems and what kind of operations are most suitable for the use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) – also known as drones.

The Norwegian pilot in the AURORAL project (www.auroral.eu) looks into the opportunities and benefits provided through “Search-and-alert” and “search-and-rescue” operations. Services supporting wellbeing is either included as part of regional contingency plans or through organisations such as Red Cross, Sea Rescue Service and Peoples Aid.

The findings are tentative. However, when looking into cost-benefits, health-based services have to be separated into tasks related to regularity, priority and assistance. Some models have been overly optimistic in terms of cost savings. However, the issues raised in “Comparing the cost-effectiveness of drones v ground vehicles for medical, food and parcel deliveries (13. November 2019)” [link], still stands true though.

Several considerations need to be taken into account. Is there a suitable space for landing? Are well-established routines for notification of local authorities and Civil Aviation Authority? Are logistics related to maintenance adhering to standards – including reports and logs? How fast can the shipment be brought to the drone – and how is it dispatched? What about security and confirmation?

An interesting report that describes some of these issues, is “Ready for Take-Off? Integrating Drones into the Transport System (ITF Research Report 2021)” [link]. What can be extracted from these findings, is that parts of the transport chain may be benefit from a more streamlined process. In particular issues related to distance and management of operation centres when dealing with different sets of drone classifications and -categories

Some of considerations have been included in the study named “Drone versus ambulance for blood products transportation: an economic evaluation study (BMC Health Services Research, 5. December 2021)” [link]. Several lessons were learned from conducting Cost-Effectiveness Analysis (CEA) to calculate an Incremental Cost Effectiveness Ratio (ICER). The denominator used was travel time, and the Cost-Effectiveness Ratio (CER) indicated a notable increase in cost for every minute saved using a drone instead of an ambulance. The cost calculation table used in the study can serve as a good reference point for future models when including values for capital cost, recurrent costs, utility cost, maintenance, human resource, equipment and disposable leading to a grand total cost.

These values are not comparable across all kinds of transport carriers and goods, but still indicates that drones may be a viable alternative under the right circumstances. In the health-pilot that is being conducted in Norway these aspects will be included in the final evaluation. The findings may influence where cross-sector services could – and should – be included to increase Return Of Investment (ROI) for agencies and organisations involved in establishing related services.