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.

 
 
 
 

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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