Delivery drones probably won't take off in cities – not least thanks to the new sport of “drone downing”

Quick, shoot it! A drone over Paris. Image: Getty.

You may have gasped with disbelief the first time you saw a photograph of a drone home-delivering a box from Amazon or cakes from a bakery or carrying a bag of crisps. Until recently, this was the stuff of science fiction. Your initial reaction was probably: “Amazing... but will it ever take off?”

Drones – or unmanned aerial vehicles, as we once called them – have now become capable of lifting and delivering on the back of continued research and technological ingenuity. Amazon has recently been trialling drones in Australia and the UK, but don’t get too excited: this is likely to be an exception rather than a norm. The practical reality of using drones in cities remains far away and is getting ever more distant.

There are already too many potential problems to let drones fly with sufficiently loose restrictions in cities to make a delivery business viable. One major issue is drones interfering with aircraft, thanks to surging numbers of near-misses. Drones are also increasingly being used to fly drugs and other contraband into prisons.

Swiss drone trial, 2015. Image: EPA.

In the US, there have been fears about camera-equipped drones stalking celebrities for paparazzi. There have also been stories about invasive drone surveillance, both on behalf of the state and private individuals.

Drone law

The biggest backlog of legal cases in the US is reportedly drone claims over issues including safety, noise, damage, personal intrusion and privacy. The whole area is a growing business for lawyers, with drone law journals springing up and fierce debates over whether, for example, drones fall within the definition of aircraft for legal purposes.

New US flight rules introduced last August did lead some optimists to predict a new business opportunity that could create 100,000 new jobs – but the reality is that the whole sector is in a mess. The US Federal Aviation Authority has explicitly said drone deliveries are off limits, at least pending further research into their consequences.

At the same time, technologies are emerging that are designed to down drones. Your initial reaction might be that these will never work either, but I’m not so sure.

A great recent British engineering invention is the SkyWall100. It looks like a bazooka gun and uses laser-guided targeting to fire a ball. This opens into a net that engulfs the drone and brings it to earth under a parachute. It went on sale late last year and is retailing at between £50,000 and £65,000 depending on the size of the order. So far, it has attracted a promising level of interest.

The SkyWall100 is safer and less messy than shooting down drones with bullets, yet it opens up a cavern of legal ambiguities. In the UK, for example, it’s classed as a firearm so can only be owned by someone with the appropriate licence – restricting them mainly to the police or military. The US has looser firearm restrictions, of course, but firearms still generally can’t be discharged within city limits. However, the SkyWall100 is not classified as a firearm in the US, so it can be discharged anywhere.

Among other techniques for taking out drones, one is the Battelle DroneDefender, which is a large gun that fires a “cone of energy” at a device that disrupts GPS systems. So far, these are only in use by the military and not permitted for public sale.


Going down...

If the likes of the SkyWall100 are going to let people prevent drones from moving over their private property to avoid their nuisance, noise and frankly hazard of failure, a new sport of “drone downing” could easily become extremely popular in the coming years – at least in America. Drone-downing raises the alluring prospect of capturing free booty if it strays illegally into your property. So what constitutes illegal?

While I stress I am no lawyer, the US rules for protecting your drone from such potshots would appear to be as follows. It must weigh less than 25kg and can’t be out of your line of sight or higher than 400ft in the air. It can only be flown in daylight, and at dawn and dusk it needs special lights to make it visible. It also can’t be flown over groups of people or near stadiums or airports.

In the UK, the rules are similar, but with slightly tougher weight restrictions and additional requirements – it must be at least 150 metres from a building and 50 metres from a person or vehicle. If I was planning to build a shopping or pizza delivery business based on using drones that delivered to homes in cities, restrictions like these would make me more than a little jittery.

Put all this together and it’s virtually impossible to see drone deliveries becoming viable in cities. It might be a different story in remote locations where special deliveries may be deemed acceptable and welcomed, but otherwise I’m afraid this is one vision of the future that has no chance of coming to pass. It is an example of a clearly brilliant concept that is colliding badly with human nature and reality.The Conversation

Richard Andrew Williams is principal and vice chancellor of Heriot-Watt University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

How bad is the air pollution on the average subway network?

The New York Subway. Image: Getty.

Four more major Indian cities will soon have their own metro lines, the country’s government has announced. On the other side of the Himalayas, Shanghai is building its 14th subway line, set to open in 2020, adding 38.5 km and 32 stations to the world’s largest subway network. And New Yorkers can finally enjoy their Second Avenue Subway line after waiting for almost 100 years for it to arrive.

In Europe alone, commuters in more than 60 cities use rail subways. Internationally, more than 120m people commute by them every day. We count around 4.8m riders per day in London, 5.3m in Paris, 6.8m in Tokyo, 9.7m in Moscow and 10m in Beijing.

Subways are vital for commuting in crowded cities, something that will become more and more important over time – according to a United Nations 2014 report, half of the world’s population is now urban. They can also play a part in reducing outdoor air pollution in large metropolises by helping to reduce motor-vehicle use.

Large amounts of breathable particles (particulate matter, or PM) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2), produced in part by industrial emissions and road traffic, are responsible for shortening the lifespans of city dwellers. Public transportation systems such as subways have thus seemed like a solution to reduce air pollution in the urban environment.

But what is the air like that we breathe underground, on the rail platforms and inside trains?

Mixed air quality

Over the last decade, several pioneering studies have monitored subway air quality across a range of cities in Europe, Asia and the Americas. The database is incomplete, but is growing and is already valuable.

Subway, Tokyo, 2016. Image: Mildiou/Flickr/creative commons.

For example, comparing air quality on subway, bus, tram and walking journeys from the same origin to the same destination in Barcelona, revealed that subway air had higher levels of air pollution than in trams or walking in the street, but slightly lower than those in buses. Similar lower values for subway environments compared to other public transport modes have been demonstrated by studies in Hong Kong, Mexico City, Istanbul and Santiago de Chile.

Of wheels and brakes

Such differences have been attributed to different wheel materials and braking mechanisms, as well as to variations in ventilation and air conditioning systems, but may also relate to differences in measurement campaign protocols and choice of sampling sites.

Second Avenue Subway in the making, New York, 2013. Image: MTA Capital Construction/Rehema Trimiew/Wikimedia Commons.

Key factors influencing subway air pollution will include station depth, date of construction, type of ventilation (natural/air conditioning), types of brakes (electromagnetic or conventional brake pads) and wheels (rubber or steel) used on the trains, train frequency and more recently the presence or absence of platform screen-door systems.

In particular, much subway particulate matter is sourced from moving train parts such as wheels and brake pads, as well as from the steel rails and power-supply materials, making the particles dominantly iron-containing.


To date, there is no clear epidemiological indication of abnormal health effects on underground workers and commuters. New York subway workers have been exposed to such air without significant observed impacts on their health, and no increased risk of lung cancer was found among subway train drivers in the Stockholm subway system.

But a note of caution is struck by the observations of scholars who found that employees working on the platforms of Stockholm underground, where PM concentrations were greatest, tended to have higher levels of risk markers for cardiovascular disease than ticket sellers and train drivers.

The dominantly ferrous particles are mixed with particles from a range of other sources, including rock ballast from the track, biological aerosols (such as bacteria and viruses), and air from the outdoors, and driven through the tunnel system on turbulent air currents generated by the trains themselves and ventilation systems.

Comparing platforms

The most extensive measurement programme on subway platforms to date has been carried out in the Barcelona subway system, where 30 stations with differing designs were studied under the frame of IMPROVE LIFE project with additional support from the AXA Research Fund.

It reveals substantial variations in particle-matter concentrations. The stations with just a single tunnel with one rail track separated from the platform by glass barrier systems showed on average half the concentration of such particles in comparison with conventional stations, which have no barrier between the platform and tracks. The use of air-conditioning has been shown to produce lower particle-matter concentrations inside carriages.

In trains where it is possible to open the windows, such as in Athens, concentrations can be shown generally to increase inside the train when passing through tunnels and more specifically when the train enters the tunnel at high speed.

According to their construction material, you may breath different kind of particles on various platforms worldwide. Image: London Tube/Wikimedia Commons.

Monitoring stations

Although there are no existing legal controls on air quality in the subway environment, research should be moving towards realistic methods of mitigating particle pollution. Our experience in the Barcelona subway system, with its considerable range of different station designs and operating ventilation systems, is that each platform has its own specific atmospheric micro environment.

To design solutions, one will need to take into account local conditions of each station. Only then can researchers assess the influences of pollution generated from moving train parts.

The ConversationSuch research is still growing and will increase as subway operating companies are now more aware about how cleaner air leads directly to better health for city commuters.

Fulvio Amato is a tenured scientist at the Spanish National Research CouncilTeresa Moreno is a tenured scientist at the Institute of Environmental Assessment and Water Research (IDAEA), Spanish Scientific Research Council CSIC.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.