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.

 
 
 
 

The Thessaloniki dig problem: How can Greece build anything when it’s swarming with archaeologists?

Archaeological finds on display in an Athens metro station. Image: Gary Hartley.

It’s fair to say that the ancient isn’t much of a novelty in Greece. Almost every building site quickly becomes an archaeological site – it’s hard to spin a tight 360 in Athens without a reminder of ancient civilisation, even where the city is at its ugliest.

The country’s modern cities, recent interlopers above the topsoil, serve as fascinating grounds for debates that are not just about protecting the ancient, but what exactly to do with it once it’s been protected.

The matter-of-fact presentation that comes with the many, many discoveries illustrates the point. Athens often opts to display things more or less where they were found, making metro stations a network of museums that would probably take pride of place in most other capitals. If you’re into the casual presentation of the evocative, it doesn’t get much better than the toy dog on wheels in Acropolis station.

That’s not even close to the extent of what’s available to cast an eye over as you go about your day. There are ruins just inside the city centre’s flagship Zara store, visible through the glass floor and fringed by clothes racks; Roman baths next to a park cafe; an ancient road and cemetery in an under-used square near Omonia, the city’s down-at-heel centre point.

Ruins in Zara. Image: Gary Hartley.

There is undoubtedly something special about stumbling upon the beauty of the Ancients more or less where it’s always been, rather than over-curated and corralled into purpose-built spaces, beside postcards for sale. Not that there isn’t plenty of that approach too – but Greece offers such sheer abundance that you’ll always get at least part of the history of the people, offered up for the people, with no charge attached.

While the archaic and the modern can sit side by side with grace and charm, economic pressures are raising an altogether more gritty side to the balancing act. The hard press of international lenders for the commercialisation and privatisation of Greek assets is perhaps the combustible issue of the moment – but archaeology is proving something of a brake on the speed of the great sell-off.

The latest case in point is the development of Elliniko – a site where the city’s decrepit former airport and a good portion of the 2004 Olympic Games complex sits, along the coastal stretch dubbed the Athens Riviera. With support from China and Abu Dhabi, luxury hotels and apartments, malls and a wholesale re-landscaping of several square kilometres of coastline are planned.

By all accounts the bulldozers are ready to roll, but when a whole city’s hovering above its classical roots, getting an international, multi-faceted construction job off the ground promises to be tricky – even when it’s worth €8bn.


And so it’s proved. After much political push and shove over the last few weeks, 30 hectares of the 620-hectare plot have now been declared of historical interest by the country’s Central Archaeological Council. This probably means the development will continue, but only after considerable delays, and under the watchful eye of archaeologists.

It would be too easy to create a magical-realist fantasy of the Ancient Greeks counterpunching against the attacks of unrestrained capital. The truth is, even infrastructure projects funded with domestic public money run into the scowling spirits of history.

Thessaloniki’s Metro system, due for completion next year, has proved to be a series of profound accidental excavations – or, in the immortal words of the boss of Attiko Metro A.E., the company in charge of the project, “problems of the past”.

The most wonderful such ‘problem’ to be revealed is the Decumanus Maximus, the main avenue of the Byzantine city – complete with only the world’s second example of a square paved with marble. Add to that hundreds of thousands of artefacts, including incredibly well-preserved jewellery, and you’ve a hell of a haul.

Once again, the solution that everyone has finally agreed on is to emulate the Athens approach – making museums of the new metro stations. (Things have moved on from early suggestions that finds should be removed and stored at an ex-army camp miles from where they were unearthed.)

There are other problems. Government departments have laid off many of their experts, and the number of archaeologists employed at sites of interest has been minimised. Non-profit organisations have had their own financial struggles. All of this has aroused international as well as local concern, a case in point being the U.S. government’s renewal of Memorandums of Understanding with the Greek state in recent years over protection of “cultural property”.

But cuts in Greece are hardly a new thing: lack of government funding has become almost accepted across society. And when an obvious target for ire recedes, the public often needs to find a new one.

Roman baths in Athens. Image: Gary Hartley.

Archaeologists are increasingly finding themselves to be that target – and in the midst of high-stakes projects, it’s extremely hard to win an argument. If they rush an excavation to allow the quickest possible completion, they’re seen as reckless. If they need more time, they’re blamed for holding up progress. 

Another widely-told but possibly-apocryphal tale illustrates this current problem. During the construction of the Athens Metro, a construction worker was so frustrated by the perceived dawdling of archaeologists that he bought a cheap imitation amphora in a gift shop, smashed it up and scattered the fragments on site. The worthless pieces were painstakingly removed and analysed.

True or not, does this tale really prove any point about archaeologists? Not really. They’re generally a pragmatic bunch, simply wanting to keep relics intact and not get too embroiled in messy public debates.

It also doesn’t truly reflect mainstream attitudes to cultural capital. By and large, it’s highly valued for its own sake here. And while discoveries and delays may be ripe for satire, having history’s hoard on your doorstep offers inconveniences worth enduring. It’s also recognised that, since tourists are not just here for the blue skies, good food and beaches, it’s an important money-maker.

Nonetheless, glass malls and shiny towers with coastal views rising from public land are good for the purse, too – and the gains are more immediate. As the Greek state continues its relentless quest for inward investment, tensions are all but guaranteed in the coming years. 

This is a country that has seen so many epic battles in its time it has become a thing of cliché and oiled-up Hollywood depiction. But the latest struggle, between rapacious modernity and the buried past, could well be the most telling yet. 

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook