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.