The rise of the drones means your municipal council will need a skyways department

A drone over New York City. Image: Getty.

Before long, your local council’s highways department may need to be joined by a skyways department. That’s what NESTA has found over the past year, as we’ve looked at the future of drones in the UK.

In the space of a few years, drones have gone from being either a low-tech novelty toy, or a high-tech and high-cost tool out of the reach of anyone aside from the military. But as their price has tumbled, their use has soared and their technology has matured. They are now routinely used on building sites and to monitor vital infrastructure like railway tracks, taking workers out of harm’s way. And in emergencies, police and fire services use them to gather the real-time information they need to save lives.

So far so good. But as the technology improves, there is much more that drones could do.

They can fly further and faster than before. Technologists are making breakthroughs in self-piloting and remote operation, which means they no longer need to fly within sight of an operator with a remote control. They can operate ever more safely and securely even in challenging environments.

And that means they could soon be used over far wider parts of our cities. While just now they might hover low over a building site or linger over the site of a fire, in future they could routinely survey entire areas of cities, or launch from a fire station and fly autonomously to the site of a 999 call.

That’s what’s technically possible. Whether it’s what we want as a society is of course another question.

Autonomous drones flying over built-up areas would be a big change to our urban environment, and it’s not something that should be done without public support. And while some of the more commercial uses of drones – delivering online shopping, pizzas, even air taxis – are viewed with some suspicion, we’ve found a receptive audience for more socially beneficial uses.

Both our opinion polling and the extensive consultation we carried out over nine months with five local authorities in England show that there are some use cases for drones that have clear public support: uses such as emergency response to fires or car crashes; carrying urgent medical samples between hospitals; making medical deliveries to islands such as the Isle of Wight; carrying out safety-critical tasks in building sites that can speed up construction and reduce risks to workers.

Allowing these use cases for drones to become reality – as well as the more commercial uses, should public opinion move in their favour – requires more work, though.

As things stand, it’s hard to get permission to operate drones remotely, near buildings, near helicopter routes, or in countless restricted areas of airspace around the country. (These cover everything from power stations to airports to prisons.) The patchwork of airspace authority makes operating in many urban areas illegal unless you’re granted special permission, restricting where and how drones can be used.

On top of this, unlike for airliners operating high in the sky, there is no comprehensive air traffic control system for drones (although there are regulations for operation).

Right now, with small numbers operating, and the drones rarely straying far from their pilots, this lack of air traffic control isn’t much of a problem – but with heavier traffic, and drones sometimes ranging for miles across busy airspace, we’ll need a way to keep everything under control.

So if we’re serious about the benefits these uses of drones can bring, we need a way to manage low-altitude airspace in cities. And unlike air traffic control, which has little impact on those below beyond seeing airliners as specks in the sky above, a drone traffic control system would have bigger implications on our lives. Low-flying drones could affect the privacy and safety of those below; areas of heavy traffic could see noise or visual pollution. So unlike airspace at 30,000 feet, which is rightly national government’s job to regulate, low-level airspace in cities needs a different approach.

We think city governments – local councils, combined authorities – have unique legitimacy in doing this. Even if the technical operation of a drone traffic control might best belong in another organisation, and even be run by a single body across the whole UK, we think it’s vital that oversight, decision making and strategic direction come from your local skyways department – not by diktat from Westminster.

But the conversation needs to be broader – including potential users of drones such as emergency services, the NHS, public services, and those that own the infrastructure that drones may interact with, such as Network Rail. These types of organisations have never been involved in aviation in the past – but the emerging field of urban air mobility is about much more than aviation technology. And direct involvement from local people is vital.

In the coming years, as we decide where drones can operate, what rules they must follow and what tasks they can carry out in cities, we’ll need to make many decisions about how they operate. Let’s make sure they’re made by, and in the best interests of the people they will most affect – and not by those with the most money or the most entrenched interests.

Tris Dyson is executive director of Nesta’s Challenge Prize Centre.


To beat rising temperatures, Vienna launches a network of 'Cool Streets'

A Vienna resident cools off at one of the city's new Cool Streets installations. (Courtesy Christian Fürthner/Mobilitätsagentur Wien)

Over the past several months, Austria has recorded its highest unemployment rate since World War II, thanks to the economic aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic. With no job or a suddenly smaller income – not to mention the continued threat of the virus – many Viennese will opt for a staycation this summer.  

At the same time, last year, Austria’s capital experienced 39 days with temperatures of over 30°C (86°F), one of its hottest summers in history according to the Central Institute for Meteorology and Geodynamics.

Climate experts expect a similarly sizzling 2020 season, and city officials are now doubling down on efforts to combat the heat by launching a “Cool Streets” initiative as well as a new, state-of-the-art cooling park.

“As the city councilwoman in charge of climate, it is my job to ensure local cooling,” Vienna’s deputy mayor Birgit Hebein proclaimed at the opening of one of 22 new “Cool Streets” on 22 June.

“In Austria, there are already more heat deaths than traffic fatalities,” she added.

Hebein was referring to the 766 people the Austrian Agency for Health and Food Security included in its 2018 heat-associated mortality statistics. The number was up by 31% compared to 2017, and in contrast to the 409 people who died in traffic collisions the same year.

The project includes 18 temporary Cool Streets located across the city, plus four roads that will be redesigned permanently and designated as “Cool Streets Plus”.

“The Plus version includes the planting of trees. Brighter surfaces, which reflect less heat, replace asphalt in addition to the installation of shadow or water elements,” said Kathrin Ivancsits, spokeswoman for the city-owned bureau Mobilitätsagentur, which is coordinating the project.

Vienna's seasonal Cool Streets provide shady places to rest and are closed to cars. (Petra Loho for CityMetric)

In addition to mobile shade dispensers and seating possibilities amid more greenery provided by potted plants, each street features a steel column offering drinking water and spray cooling. The temporary Cool Streets will also remain car-free until 20 September.

A sensor in the granite base releases drinking water and pushes it through 34 nozzles whenever the outside temperature reaches 25°C (77°F) . As soon as the ambient temperature drops to 23°C (73°F), the sensor, which operates from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., turns off the water supply.

The sensors were included in part to allay concerns about legionella, a pathogenic bacteria that can reproduce in water.  

“When the spray stops, the system drains, and therefore no microbial contamination can develop,” said Dr. Hans-Peter Hutter, deputy head of the Department of Environmental Health at the Center for Public Health at Medical University Vienna, in a televised interview.

Hutter also assured the public that there is no increased risk of a Covid-19 infection from the spray as long as people adhere to the one-meter social distance requirement.

But Samer Bagaeen of the University of Kent's School of Architecture and Planning notes that air cooling systems, like the ones used in Germany at abattoirs, have been found recently to be a risk factor for Covid-19 outbreaks.

“The same could be said for spay devices,” he warned.

Vienna’s district councils selected the 22 Cool Street locations with the help of the city’s Urban Heat Vulnerability Index. The map shows where most people suffer from heat by evaluating temperature data, green and water-related infrastructure, and demographic data.

“Urban heat islands can occur when cities replace the natural land cover with dense concentrations of pavement, buildings, and other surfaces that absorb and retain heat,” as the US Environmental Protection Agency states.

A rendering of Vienna's planned park featuring a Coolspot, which is scheduled to open in August. Click to expand.
(Courtesy Carla Lo Landscape Architecture)

Vienna’s sixth district, Mariahilf, is such an area. The construction of the capital’s first “Cooling Park”, a €1 million project covering the 10,600 square-metre Esterházypark, is designed to provide relief. 

Green4Cities, a centre of excellence for green infrastructure in urban areas, designed the park’s main attraction, the “Coolspot”. The nearly 3.40-metre high steel trellis holds three rings equipped with spray nozzles. Textile shading slats, tensioned with steel cables, cover them.

The effects of evaporation and evapotranspiration create a cooler microclimate around the 30 square-metre seating area, alongside other spray spots selectively scattered across the park.

The high-pressure spray also deposits tiny droplets on plant and tree leaves, which stimulates them to sweat even more. All together, these collective measures help to cool their surroundings by up to six degrees.

The landscape architect Carla Lo and her team planned what she calls the “low-tech” park components. “Plants are an essential design element of the Cooling Park,” Lo says. “By unsealing the [soil], we can add new grass, herbaceous beds, and more climate-resistant trees to the existing cultivation”.

Light-coloured, natural stone punctuated by grass seams replaces the old concrete surfaces, and wooden benches meander throughout the park.

Living near the park and yearning for an urban escape close by, Lo says she’s motivated to ensure the park is completed by mid-August.

“If we don't do anything, Vienna will be another eight degrees Celsius hotter in 2050 than it already is,” Hebein said.

Vienna recently came in first in the World's 10 Greenest Cities Index by the consulting agency Resonance.

“There is no one size fits all on how cities respond to urban heat,” says the University of Kent’s Bagaeen, who points out that Vienna was one of the first European cities to set up an Urban Heat Islands Strategic Plan in 2015.

In the short term, prognoses on the city’s future development may be more difficult: Vienna votes this autumn.

Petra Loho is a journalist and photographer based in Austria.