Most predictions about drones describe delivery of goods. A pizza landing on the doorstep, a box of groceries, even delivery of people – but this is the binary view of bringing a thing to a person or a person to a place.
In our cities, we thrive on a combination of things that need to be in balance: living in a home, doing business and having fun. For the city to sustain these things it needs to manage its infrastructure and services to the highest level of performance.
From traffic monitoring to search-and-rescue missions
Drones could step up our ability to monitor traffic, giving real-time updates and gathering data to inform longer-term redevelopment. They could support law enforcement by monitoring crowds at large gatherings. Drones in the UK are already scanning rail tracks for predictive maintenance, and will soon carry out safety inspections on tall buildings. Drones have uses in emergency response, with infrared sensors they can analyze fire hotspots to help fire-fighters direct their hoses, and to locate people trapped in the blaze. After incidents, they can survey damage on hazardous sites. Drones can aid in missing person search-and-rescue missions, and assess emergency situations before first responders arrive.
Today, parcel delivery is drones’ most well-developed and commercially viable use, and the one with the greatest potential to reconfigure urban life. To make this work effectively, buildings will have to adapt. Drones will need delivery corridors, safe landing pads, which could be retrofitted on roofs, exterior walls of individual flats or offices, or even on nearby infrastructure like lamp posts (for which Amazon filed a patent in 2016). Buildings may soon be equipped with high-tech lockers that safeguard newly delivered smartphones, keep groceries cool and pizza take-out hot, and open only with their intended recipient’s delivery code, fingerprint, or facial recognition. This automation would substantially cut the “last mile” costs of delivery, which currently make up nearly 25% of the cost of parcel deliveries. In the UK, as much as one in eight parcel shipments are missed at the first attempted delivery, if the recipient happens to be out.
Study: 70% less delivery vehicles possible
Shifting deliveries from the ground to the air could reshape traffic patterns, freeing city streets from unwieldy and under-utilized delivery vans and their emissions. A study in London showed that logistics delivery of goods could reduce delivery vehicles by 70% with a congestion reduction of 15% overnight. If people stop driving to the store, private cars will take even less road space and require less parking. However, drones don’t eliminate delivery traffic, they just shift it upwards. Air space and air rights are becoming a new resource for cities to manage, just as they today oversee land use by developing safety regulations and enforcing property rights.
How to prevent hacking and spying?
Some cities are already developing systems to register drones and license operators, to prevent issues like crashes, hacking and spying, which would only escalate with the number of active drones. Preventing such threats to safety and security may involve new coalitions between aviation administrations, planning departments, and city IT agencies. Additional industries may emerge in drone security and insurance.
Environmentally, the impact of drones is unclear. They may reduce the air pollution spewed by delivery vehicles. More likely they will displace traffic upwards that will ultimately be replaced by more ground based vehicles. Maybe an air congestion charge is needed that works in concert with a road congestion charge. It’s unclear how the electricity that fuels drones will be sourced. One thing is clear – all vehicles moving in the city will need to be somehow connected, cleaner, and quieter than ever before!
Next frontier: passenger drones
Last year, Amazon tested its “Prime Air” service in Cambridge, 7Eleven drones delivered food to hungry Nevadans, and Dubai has even begun experimenting with the next frontier: passenger drones. It has already begun.
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