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.

 
 
 
 

“Stop worrying about hairdressers”: The UK government has misdiagnosed its productivity problem

We’re going as fast as we can, here. Image: Getty.

Gonna level with you here, I have mixed feelings about this one. On the one hand, I’m a huge fan of schadenfreude, so learning that it the government has messed up in a previously unsuspected way gives me this sort of warm glow inside. On the other hand, the way it’s been screwing up is probably making the country poorer, and exacerbating the north south divide. So, mixed reviews really.

Here’s the story. This week the Centre for Cities (CfC) published a major report on Britain’s productivity problem. For the last 200 years, ever since the industrial revolution, this country has got steadily richer. Since the financial crash, though, that seems to have stopped.

The standard narrative on this has it that the problem lies in the ‘long tail’ of unproductive businesses – that is, those that produce less value per hour. Get those guys humming, the thinking goes, and the productivity problem is sorted.

But the CfC’s new report says that this is exactly wrong. The wrong tail: Why Britain’s ‘long tail’ is not the cause of its productivity problems (excellent pun, there) delves into the data on productivity in different types of businesses and different cities, to demonstrate two big points.

The first is that the long tail is the wrong place to look for productivity gains. Many low productivity businesses are low productivity for a reason:

The ability of manufacturing to automate certain processes, or the development of ever more sophisticated computer software in information and communications have greatly increased the output that a worker produces in these industries. But while a fitness instructor may use a smartphone today in place of a ghetto blaster in 1990, he or she can still only instruct one class at a time. And a waiter or waitress can only serve so many tables. Of course, improvements such as the introduction of handheld electronic devices allow orders to be sent to the kitchen more efficiently, will bring benefits, but this improvements won’t radically increase the output of the waiter.

I’d add to that: there is only so fast that people want to eat. There’s a physical limit on the number of diners any restaurant can actually feed.

At any rate, the result of this is that it’s stupid to expect local service businesses to make step changes in productivity. If we actually want to improve productivity we should focus on those which are exporting services to a bigger market.  There are fewer of these, but the potential gains are much bigger. Here’s a chart:

The y-axis reflects number of businesses at different productivities, shown on the x-axis. So bigger numbers on the left are bad; bigger numbers on the right are good. 

The question of which exporting businesses are struggling to expand productivity is what leads to the report’s second insight:

Specifically it is the underperformance of exporting businesses in cities outside of the Greater South East that causes not only divergences across the country in wages and standards of living, but also hampers national productivity. These cities in particular should be of greatest concern to policy makers attempting to improve UK productivity overall.

In other words, it turned out, again, to the north-south divide that did it. I’m shocked. Are you shocked? This is my shocked face.

The best way to demonstrate this shocking insight is with some more graphs. This first one shows the distribution of productivity in local services business in four different types of place: cities in the south east (GSE) in light green, cities in the rest of the country (RoGB) in dark green, non-urban areas in the south east in purple, non-urban areas everywhere else in turquoise.

The four lines are fairly consistent. The light green, representing south eastern cities has a lower peak on the left, meaning slightly fewer low productivity businesses, but is slightly higher on the right, meaning slightly more high productivity businesses. In other words, local services businesses in the south eastern cities are more productive than those elsewhere – but the gap is pretty narrow. 

Now check out the same graph for exporting businesses:

The differences are much more pronounced. Areas outside those south eastern cities have many more lower productivity businesses (the peaks on the left) and significantly fewer high productivity ones (the lower numbers on the right).

In fact, outside the south east, cities are actually less productive than non-urban areas. This is really not what you’d expect to see, and no a good sign for the health of the economy:

The report also uses a few specific examples to illustrate this point. Compare Reading, one of Britain’s richest medium sized cities, with Hull, one of its poorest:

Or, looking to bigger cities, here’s Bristol and Sheffield:

In both cases, the poorer northern cities are clearly lacking in high-value exporting businesses. This is a problem because these don’t just provide well-paying jobs now: they’re also the ones that have the potential to make productivity gains that can lead to even better jobs. The report concludes:

This is a major cause for concern for the national economy – the underperformance of these cities goes a long way to explain both why the rest of Britain lags behind the Greater South East and why it performs poorly on a

European level. To illustrate the impact, if all cities were as productive as those in the Greater South East, the British economy would be 15 per cent more productive and £225bn larger. This is equivalent to Britain being home to four extra city economies the size of Birmingham.

In other words, the lesson here is: stop worrying about the productivity of hairdressers. Start worrying about the productivity of Hull.


You can read the Centre for Cities’ full report here.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites

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