Who should decide how drones operate in cities?

A drone over Lille. Image: Getty.

Amazon recently filed a patent for a new technique involving parachutes and magnets to deliver parcels via drone safely to customers’ back gardens.

This came hot on the heels of 300 drones dancing over Lady Gaga’s Super Bowl performance only to be upstaged by a 1,000-drone light show in Guangzhou a few days later. Meanwhile, Japanese scientists have created drones that can pollinate flowers, offsetting global declining bee populations.

A decade or two from now it’s entirely plausible that we could see fleets of drones crisscrossing our cities. Some will be delivering medicine to housebound patients and vaccines to hospitals, while others will drop off lunches and contracts for harried city workers. Drones will be performing bridge assessments following winter storms, monitoring air pollution, delivering live broadcasts or even carrying people.

Drones are seemingly everywhere – but there is still plenty of scepticism. As Richard Andrew Williams rightly points out, there is a host of regulatory, legal and practical barriers to overcome before drones become a fixture of the urban landscape. Our cities have been transformed by a succession of technological breakthroughs over the last two centuries: the arrival of electricity, telephones and of course the car. In the 21st century, drones could have a similarly profound impact, swooping amongst skyscrapers and flying high above our roads and rail lines.

But turning that vision to reality won’t be easy. Indeed, the prospect of packages dropping via parachutes over densely populated areas means we urgently need smart policy development and a wider public conversation about how this technology impacts our lives.

Some challenges still to be addressed are technical in nature: engineering vehicles that can operate quietly and autonomously, designing infrastructure like landing pads or next generation air traffic control systems, creating better sensor technology and emergency landing capabilities, agreeing on technical standards that enable scalability and interoperability. While these questions are largely solvable, not enough has been done on how they operate together, at scale, in real-world environments.

From a policy point of view, the big questions are about whether drones should be restricted to well-defined routes. The Civil Aviation Authority’s Dronecode limits where and how drones can fly – but this is only a start.


Possible exceptions pose thorny ethical debates. For instance, we’ll need to decide how to enable a drone carrying a life-saving organ to surpass standard flight paths, or whether some operators can pay for premium routing priority and faster, more direct routes. Will key parts of the infrastructure like landing pads be open to anyone, as roads are? If so, how will the public pay for and manage them? These considerations echo the current narrative around the autonomy of driverless cars, but are not being given the same attention.

Another cluster of issues centres on real-time data sharing and the appropriate rights of regulators. How will flight paths and movement in real time be shared, to achieve optimal coordination? Should regulators be able to override the drone’s controls? For example, if drones are hacked (as drug traffickers along the US-Mexico border have done) or go haywire, what will trigger decision-makers to step in? As cities from New York and London to Helsinki and Sofia have opened up transport data to improve urban mobility, the data generated from drone-based services can similarly illuminate local movement patterns and services needs – if managed correctly.

Other issues to tackle will be inherently economic. We don’t yet know how drones will influence patterns of economic growth, or particular sectors, such as insurance or logistics. After the US released drone regulations last year, forecasters predicted that the industry will create 100,000 new jobs by 2025 – but others worry that increased automation will leave some workers out in the cold. Before long we’ll also face questions of tax. Will drone usage require registration fees or pay-per-mile arrangements to cover the costs of shared infrastructure?

And most importantly, who will make these decisions?

A century ago the regulation of cars moved forward haphazardly, mainly thanks to problems: crashes, accidents and pollution. All too often, a new technology comes along and cities must find ways to adapt. This is an opportunity to think differently and move the conversation forward, bringing together cities, technologists, regulators and the public.

Drones could be a fantastic boon for cities. but that requires careful thought now – which will be as much about urban planning as it is about technological design.

Geoff Mulgan, Tris Dyson and Kathy Nothstine at innovation foundation Nesta.

Nesta’s Challenge Prize Centre is looking at how drones can enhance city life rather than damage it. It is scoping a series of outcome-based funding opportunities, culminating in live, large-scale and complex urban drones systems demonstrations projects.

 
 
 
 

On Walter Benjamin, and the “Arcades Project”

Passage Verdue, Paris. Image: LPLT/Wikimedia Commons.

In 1940 a small group of refugees were turned away at the French-Spanish border. Having fled the Nazi invasion of France, they hoped to find safety in Spain. One of their number, a German-Jewish philosopher and writer, intended to have travelled onwards to America, where he would certainly be safe. So distraught was he by the refusal he met at the border that he took his own life.

The writer in question was Walter Benjamin, the prominent critical theorist who has contributed so much to our understanding of urban society, and he died with a manuscript close at hand. When asked previously if the briefcase of notes was really necessary to a man fleeing for his life he had replied, “I cannot risk losing it. It must be saved. It is more important than I am.”

The work that Benjamin died protecting was the Arcades Project. It was to be his magnus opus, intended by the author to illuminate the contradictions of modern city life. But it was never finished.

To Benjamin, the subject of the work, the arcades of Paris, were relics of a past social order, where consumerism ruled. The arcades were a precursor to the modern mall, lined with all sorts of shops, cafes and other establishments where visitors could buy into the good life. The area between these two lines of businesses was covered with glass and metal roofs, much like a conservatory: it gave visitors the high street feel in an intimate, sheltered and well-lit setting. You can still find examples of such places in modern London in the Burlington and Piccadilly arcades, both off Piccadilly.

Such arcades proved hugely popular, spreading across Europe’s capitals as the 19th century progressed. By Benjamin’s time, though, his type of shopping area was losing custom to the fancy department stores, and in Paris many of them had been obliterated in Haussmann’s city reforms of the 1850s and ‘60s. Whereas Parisians could once visit 300 arcades, now only 30 remain.

Through his research Benjamin started to see the arcades as representative of a pivotal moment in social history: the point when society became focused on consumption over production. Buying the latest fad product was just an opium, he thought, dulling senses to the true nature of the world. By bringing light to this, he hoped to wake people up from the consumerism of the 19th Century and bring forth some kind of socialist utopia.


He also warned that this shiny veneer of progress was hiding the true state of things. Instead, he revered crusty old cities like contemporary Marseilles and Moscow, where social life was more honest. In this way, Benjamin contributed to the intellectual movement focused on stripping away the excess of revivalism, standing alongside architects such as Le Corbusier. 

Through his newspaper essays throughout the first half of the 20th Century, Benjamin also became one of the first thinkers to focus on urban isolation. His suggestion that we can be most alone when among such a dense mass of other people is something many in modern cities would sympathise with. His work wasn’t all doom and gloom, however, as he saw cities as our salvation, too: laboratories from where society’s problems can be worked out.

It was 2000 before an English translation of the unfinished the Arcades Project was published, but by then the work had already had a significant impact. Just as he stood on the shoulders of giants such as Baudelaire and the Surrealists, modern thinkers have drawn on his work. Benjamin's concerns about common architectural forms can be seen to inspire modern architects such as Laurie Hawkinson, Steven Holl, Tod Williams and Billie Tsien.

The city of Paris itself was as much a part of the Arcade Project’s inspiration for Benjamin as was his intellectual predecessors. In his letters he repeats that it felt “more like home” than Berlin, and his days were spent marvelling at how the old and the modern exist together on the Parisian streets.

How groundbreaking the Arcades Project really was is hard to say. The fact it wasn’t finished certainly scuppered Benjamin’s plans to wake society up from its consumerist slumber, but that doesn’t make the work inconsequential. His fairytale of steel and glass is as much about the relationship between its author and Paris as it is a theoretical work. By putting the city as the main subject in human’s social history he laid the groundwork for future generations of thinkers.

Benjamin was lost to the tragic tide of the 20th century history, and his death marked the end of the project which could have changed the way we think of the urban landscape. Even if you shy away from the grandiose or don’t buy into his promises of socialist utopia, reading the work can still offer some eclectic factoids about 19th century France. At any rate, it must be acknowledged that the man gave his life to the betterment of society and the cities in which we live.