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.

 
 
 
 

A nation that doesn’t officially exist: on Somaliland’s campaign to build a national library in Hargeisa

The Somaliland National Library, Hargeisa. Image: Ahmed Elmi.

For seven years now, there’s been a fundraising campaign underway to build a new national library in a nation that doesn’t officially exist. 

Since 2010, the Somali diaspora have been sending money, to pay for construction of the new building in the capital, Hargeisa. In a video promoting the project, the British journalist Rageeh Omar, who was born in Mogadishu to a Hargeisa family, said it would be... 

“...one of the most important institutions and reference points for all Somalilanders. I hope it sets a benchmark in terms of when a country decides to do something for itself, for the greater good, for learning and for progress – that anything can be achieved.”

Now the first storey of the Somaliland National Library is largely complete. The next step is to fill it with books. The diaspora has been sending those, too.

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Some background is necessary here to explain the “country that doesn’t exist” part. During the Scramble for Africa of the 1880s, at the height of European imperialism, several different empires established protectorates in the Somali territories on the Horn of Africa. In 1883, the French took the port of Djibouti; the following year, the British grabbed the north coast, which looks out onto the Gulf of Aden. Five years after that, the Italians took the east coast, which faces the Indian Ocean.

And, excepting some uproar during World War II, so things remained for the next 70 years or so.

The Somali territories in 1890. Image: Ingoman/Wikimedia Commons.

When the winds of change arrived in 1960, the British and Italian portions agreed to unite as the Somali Republic: a hair-pin shaped territory, hugging the coast and surrounding Ethiopia on two sides. But British Somaliland gained its independence first: for just five days, at the end of June 1960, it was effectively an independent country. This will become important later.

(In case you are wondering what happened to the French bit, it voted to remain with France in a distinctly dodgy referendum. It later became independent as Djibouti in 1977.)

The new country, informally known as Somalia, had a difficult history: nine years of democracy ended in a coup, and were followed by the 22 year military dictatorship under the presidency of General Siad Barre. In 1991, under pressure from rebel groups including the Hargeisa-based Somali National Movement (SNM), Barre fled, and his government finally collapsed. So, in effect, did the country.

For one thing, it split in two, along the old colonial boundaries: the local authorities in the British portion, backed by the SNM, made a unilateral declaration of independence. In the formerly Italian south, though, things collapsed in a rather more literal sense: the territory centred on Mogadishu was devastated by the Somali civil war, which has killed around 500,000, displaced more than twice that, and is still officially going on.

Somalia (blue) and Somaliland (yellow) in 2016. Image: Nicolay Sidorov/Wikimedia Commons.

The north, meanwhile, got off relatively lightly: today it’s the democratic and moderately prosperous Republic of Somaliland. It claims to be the successor to the independent state of Somaliland, which existed for those five days in June 1960.

This hasn’t persuaded anybody, though, and today it’s the only de facto sovereign state that has never been recognised by a single UN member. Reading about it, one gets the distinct sense that this is because it’s basically doing okay, so its lack of diplomatic recognition has never risen up anyone’s priority list.

Neither has its library.

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Rageeh Omar described the site of the new library in his fundraising video. It occupies 6,000m2 in the middle of Hargeisa, two minutes from the city’s main hospital, 10 from the presidential palace. In one sequence he stands on the half-completed building’s roof and points out the neighbours: the city’s main high street, with the country’s largest shopping mall; the Ministry of Telecoms that lies right next door.

This spiel, in a video produced by the project’s promoters, suggests something about the new library: that part of its job is to be another in this list of landmarks, more evidence that Hargeisa, a city of 1.5m, should be recognised as the proper capital of a real country.

But it isn’t just that: the description of the library’s function, in the government’s Strategic Plan 2013-2023, makes clear it’s also meant to be a real educational facility. NGOS, the report notes, have focused their resources on primary schools first, secondary schools second and other educational facilities not at all. (This makes sense, given that they want most bang for their buck.)

And so, the new building will provide “the normal functions of public library, but also... additional services that are intentionally aimed at solving the unique education problems of a post conflict society”. It’ll provide books for a network of library trucks, providing “book services” to the regions outside Hargeisa, and a “book dispersal and exchange system”, to provide books for schools and other educational facilities. There’ll even be a “Camel Library Caravan that will specifically aim at accessing the nomadic pastoralists in remote areas”.

All this, it’s hoped, will raise literacy levels, in English as well as the local languages of Arabic and Somali, and so boost the economy too.

As described. Image courtesy of Nimko Ali.

Ahmed Elmi, the London-based Somali who’s founder and director of the library campaign, says that the Somaliland government has invested $192,000 in the library. A further $97,000 came from individual and business donors in both Hargeisa and in the disaspora. “We had higher ambitions,” Elmi tells me, “but we had to humble our approach, since the last three years the country has been suffering from a large drought.”

Now the scheme is moving to its second phase: books, computers and printers, plus landscaping the gardens. This will cost another $175,000. “We are also open to donations of books, furniture and technology,” Emli says. “Or even someone with technical expertise who can help up set-up the librarian system instead of a contemporary donation of a cash sum.” The Czech government, in fact, has helped with the latter: it’s not offered financial support, but has offered to spend four weeks training two librarians.  

Inside the library.

On internet forums frequented by the Somali diaspora, a number of people have left comments about the best way to do this. One said he’d “donated all my old science and maths schoolbooks last year”. And then there’s this:

“At least 16 thousand landers get back to home every year, if everyone bring one book our children will have plenty of books to read. But we should make sure to not bring useless books such celebrity biography books or romantic novels. the kids should have plenty of science,maths and vocational books.”

Which is good advice for all of us, really.


Perhaps the pithiest description of the project comes from its Facebook page: “Africa always suffers food shortage, diseases, civil wars, corruption etc. – but the Somaliland people need a modern library to build a better place for the generations to come.”

The building doesn’t look like much: a squat concrete block, one storey-high. But there’s something about the idea of a country coming together like this to build something that’s rather moving. Books are better than sovereignty anyway.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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