News, Culture & Society

Expert says drone deliveries will fill skies with ‘incessant buzzing’

A sister company of Google, Alphabet’s Wing Aviation, just got federal approval to start using drones for commercial delivery. 

Amazon’s own drone-delivery program is ready to launch as well. As drones take flight, the world is about to get a lot louder – as if neighborhoods were filled with leaf blowers, lawn mowers and chainsaws.

Small recreational drones are fairly loud. Serious commercial drones are much louder. 

They have eight or more propellers (Alphabet’s Wing has 14; Amazon’s Octocopter has eight spinning at thousands of revolutions per minute, physically beating the air to generate lift and movement. 

The heavier the load, the harder they have to work, the more air gets beaten – and the louder the sound.


Above, a drone demonstrates delivery capabilities from the top of a UPS truck during testing in Lithia, Florida, U.S. February 20, 2017. File photo


The biggest hurdle for delivery services is what is known as the ‘last mile’.

It is defined as the movement of goods from a transportation hub to the final destination of the package – the recipient’s door.

This final stretch of delivery is often the most inefficient and expensive part of the delivery chain.

Vans delivering the last mile use up a comparatively large amount of fuel, and employee time, for individual deliveries that don’t earn companies much cash.

Routes and recipients are unpredictable, meaning many last-mile deliveries fail or run late compared to other parts of the chain.

For comparison, delivering goods to a central hub – such as an Amazon warehouse – is usually achieved via a single route, and transports hundreds of packages in one fell swoop.

To cut to the costs of the last mile, delivery companies are attempting to introduce new technologies to the step, much of it involving AI.

Autonomous delivery drones, self-driving delivery vehicles and even flying warehouses have all been proposed over the past decade.

Drones also make higher pitched buzzing sounds than helicopters, which have much lower frequencies because their larger rotors don’t need to spin as fast to generate the necessary power. 

Now imagine tens or even hundreds of drones buzzing around your neighborhood, delivering packages to homes and businesses. 

Next, imagine the round-the-clock hives of aerial activity that warehouses and distribution centers will become, in addition to their existing burden on local roads; Amazon recently ordered 20,000 new vans.

As an acoustic ecologist, I monitor the sound of our environment and how it changes. 

I am concerned that drones are taking to the air without a lot of thought for the ears of people on the ground.

Will there be a weight limit on delivery-drone payloads? Who will monitor the sound levels, and how? 

Should there be a curfew on hours of operation? 

There must be a reason companies don’t include the sound of the drone in advertising materials – and it’s probably not because they sound so nice.

Health and well-being

Urban designers are often concerned about sound levels in neighborhoods. 

Wealthier suburbs, for instance, are always farther from big noise sources like airports and highways. 

Existing noise-control laws are basically useless at protecting people’s well-being, general health or mental health. 

Some wealthy neighborhoods even consider planting trees not just for the added greenery but because the soft foliage absorbs sound, making these communities even quieter and more peaceful.

Incessant mechanical buzzing doesn’t fit with anyone’s idea of a pleasant community. That’s what drones will bring, though. 

Even domestic drones can raise baseline sound pressure levels by at least 20 decibels; when each 6dB increase means loudness doubles, that means a single drone can make an area 8 to 12 times louder than it is now.

It’s not just loudness. Drones have relatively small propellers, which don’t move much air, but they move it very rapidly. 

The amount of energy put into moving the air equates to its volume or loudness. The speed of the spinning equates to its pitch, or frequency. 

Refinements to propeller shapes can change the pitch, but companies will only research noise reduction if their customers demand it.

Adding a payload to a drone means the propellers must put more energy into the air by spinning faster – making a louder and higher-pitched sound. 

The frequencies they generate are, in fact, the very frequencies people are most sensitive to. 

Turning, or even fighting gusts of wind to stay on course, also requires more propeller energy at higher speeds. 

A NASA study found that people find the specific sounds drones make to be particularly annoying. 

The amount of time a person is exposed to different sound levels matters, too. 

A prototype "parcelcopter" of German postal and logistics group Deutsche Post DHL flies in front of the company's headquarters in Bonn December 9, 2013. DHL on Monday showed its prototype "parcelcopter," which is a modified microdrone that costs 40,000 euros ($54,900)

A prototype ‘parcelcopter’ of German postal and logistics group Deutsche Post DHL flies in front of the company’s headquarters in Bonn December 9, 2013. DHL on Monday showed its prototype ‘parcelcopter,’ which is a modified microdrone that costs 40,000 euros ($54,900)

The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration says workers exposed to 85 decibels or louder for eight hours or more may suffer hearing damage or loss. 

The Federal Aviation Administration says that residential areas should not have aircraft noise averaging above 65dB in a 24-hour period.

Ecological effects

Without forethought, public outcry and regulation, the buzzing of drones may soon fill city and suburban skies – adding to the din in many places, and disturbing the peace of even those wealthy suburbs whose residents can afford the convenience of rapid home delivery. 

Even neighborhoods that have managed to avoid being under airport flight paths will find themselves surrounded by the buzz.

Public parks, designed to provide places for recreation, community gatherings and quiet contemplation, may no longer provide any escape from the hum of daily life.

Don’t forget about the birds, either. You might not be able to enjoy birdsong in the morning with your coffee, but even worse, the birds themselves might not be able to hear each other, either. 

Bird calls are key to species’ survival, letting them warn each other of danger – and find mates.

Any home delivery service raises a great many questions about sustainability and the costs of consumption in energy, material and human lives. 

Until now, though, those deliveries have been by car and truck over existing roads and are covered by ordinances on sound levels. 

Adding drones will bring a third dimension to shipping – but also to the level of noise in the world.