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.

 
 
 
 

Which pairs of capital cities are the closest together?

Vienna, which is quite close to Bratislava, but not quite close enough. Image: Thomas Ledl

It doesn't take long to get from Paris to Brussels. An hour and a half on a comfortable Thalys train will get you there. 

Which raises an intriguing question, if you like that sort of thing: wich capital cities of neighbouring countries are the closest together? And which are the furthest away? 

There are some that one might think would be quite close, which are actually much further part. 

Buenos Aires, Argentina's capital, sits on one side of the estuary of the Río de la Plata, while Montevideo, Uruguay's capital lies on the other side. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

But at 207km apart, they're not really that close at all. 

Similarly, Singapore – capital of, er, Singapore – always sticks in the mind as 'that bit on the end of the Malaysian sticky-out bit'. But it's actually pretty far away from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia's capital. A whole 319km away, in fact:

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

Thinking of 'countries that cause problems by being close together', you inevitably think of South Korea and North Korea. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

And while Pyongyang in the North and Seoul in the South are pretty close together, 181km just isn't going to cut it. 

Time to do some Seoul-searching to find the real answer here.

(Sorry.)

(Okay, not that sorry.)

Another place where countries being close together tends to cause problems is the Middle East. Damascus, the capital of Syria, really isn't that far from Beirut, in Lebanon. Just 76km:

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

Seeing as Lebanon is currently host to millions of refugees fleeing the horrors of Syria's never-ending civil war and the atrocities of Daesh, or Isis, this is presumably something that authorities in Beirut have given a certain amount of thought to.

Most of the time, finding nearby capitals is a game of searching out which bits of the world have lots of small countries, and then rooting around. So you'd think Central America would be ripe for close-together capital fun. 

And yet the best option is Guatemala and El Salvador – where the imaginatively named Guatemala City is a whole 179km away from the also imaginatively named San Salvador.  

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

Another obvious place with lots of small-ish countries is Europe – the site of the pair of capitals that drove me to write this nonsense in the first place. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

And in fairness, Vienna and Bratislava do make a pretty good showing of it. Austria's capital sits on the Danube; drift downstream, and you swiftly get to Slovakia's capital. As the crow flies, it's 56km – though as the man swims, it's a little longer. 

There are more surprising entries – particularly if you're willing to bend the rules a little bit. Bahrain and Qatar aren't really adjacent in the traditional sense, as they have no land border, but let's just go with it. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

Manama, Bahrain's capital, is 140km away from Doha, the centre of the world's thriving local connecting-flight-industry which moonlights as Qatar's capital. 

Sticking with the maritime theme, Port of Spain in Trinidad and Tobago is 152km from St George's, Grenada. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

Good, but not good enough. 

Castries, the capital of the Carribbean country of St Lucia, is 102km north of Kingstown, the capital of St Vincent and the Grenadines. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

Better, but still not good enough. 

Basseterre, the capital of St Kitts and Nevis, inches ahead at 100km away from St John's, the capital of Antigua and Barbuda.

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

But, enough teasing: it's time to get down to the big beasts.

If you ask Google Maps to tell you the distance between the capital of Congo and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, it comes up with a rather suspect 20km. 

 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

A short distance, but considering the only thing separating the two is the River Congo, something's up: Google places the centre of Brazzaville a little north of where it should be, and the centre of Kinshasa many many miles south of where it should be, in some sort of suburb.


So, in true CityMetric style, we turn to train stations. 

Though such transport hubs may not always perfectly mark the centre of a city – just ask London Oxford Airport or London Paddington – in this case it seems about right. 

Kinshasa's main train station is helpfully called 'Gare Centrale', and is almost slap-bang in the middle of the area Google marks as 'Centre Ville'. On the other side of the river, 'Gare de Brazzaville' is in the middle of lots of densely-packed buildings, and is right next to a Basilica, which is always a good sign. 

 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

And when marking that distance, you get a more realistic 4.8km. If you want to be really keen, the ferry between them travels 3.99km, and the closest point I could find between actual buildings was 1.74km, though admittedly that's in a more suburban area. 

Pretty close, though. 

But! I can hear the inevitable cries clamouring for an end to this. So, time to give the people what they want. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

If you ask Google Maps to tell you how far away the Holy See, capital of the Vatican, is from Rome, capital of Rome, it says 3.5km. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

If you set the centre of Rome to be the Palatine Hill, the ancient marking point for roads leading out of Rome, that narrows to 2.6km.

 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

Fiddle a bit and put the centre of the Vatican as, well, the middle bit of the roughly-circular Vatican, that opens up a smidge to 2.75km.

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

Mark the centre of point of the Vatican as the approximate location of St Peter's Tomb within St Peter's Basilica, which is after all the main reason the Vatican is a thing and not just a quirky suburb of Rome, and 2.67km is your answer. 

Though obviously in practice Rome and the Vatican are as far away as one single step over the railings at the entrance of St Peter's Square, which fairly blatantly makes them the closest capital cities in the world. 

But that would have been a very boring thing to come out and say at the start. 

Oh, and if you hadn't worked it out already, the longest distance between a capital city and the capital of a country it shares a land border with is 6,395km. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

I know it's tough for you, Vladimir and Kim. Long-distance relationships are a real struggle sometimes.

I can't make a pun work on either Moscow or Pyongyang here, but readers' submissions more than welcome. 

Jack May is a regular contributor to CityMetric and tweets as @JackO_May.

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