Drones are coming. Cities need to think about what happens next
Cities need to decide how they will deal with drones. They might want to encourage them. They might choose to oppose them. They could take an active role in how they are used, or let the market decide.
The one thing they cannot do is nothing. And yet nothing is exactly what most are now doing - in part due to constrained financial resources and capabilities, and in part due to the rapid rise of drone technology.
For the past few months we have been thinking about the future of drones in urban environments, talking to technologists, cities, regulators, operators and transport planners.
Inventors and investors are optimistic for the future of drone technology, with improving range, safety, payload and noise characteristics: drones are already proving themselves useful for filming, photographing and sensing, particularly where people have historically been put in dangerous or time-intensive situations to do similar activities. Drones will soon be viable platforms for carrying significant weight.
The next big jump in their capability will be autonomous piloting, where drones fly themselves to their pre-programmed destination, rather than having to be controlled by a pilot who keeps the drone within their line of sight. This means sophisticated software and sensors on the drones themselves, as well as an urban air traffic management system to guide them. Freed from operating within the line of sight of a human pilot, this could allow drones to spread their wings across entire cities - and fly in far larger numbers than they do today - potentially engaging in ever-increasing activities that benefit businesses, citizens and public sector managers.
But the technologies being developed need testing grounds - simulated environments in which companies can try out their technologies and, sooner rather than later, living, breathing cities in which they can test their drones, as well as the services of supporting technologies that enable complex drone systems to function well.
Investors agree that drones have a bright future: big companies are betting big money on drones finding widespread uses in future cities. Businesses are seeking opportunities to serve cities with drone operations ranging from deliveries to taxi services. They are also seeking forward thinking cities and regulatory frameworks that enable them to safely test their technologies with regulatory bodies to learn, evolve and improve capabilities and potential benefits delivered.
Governments are starting to think about drones, too. In the UK, central Government is exploring proposals to develop its policy and regulatory framework, looking at the development of an unmanned air traffic management system to support the opportunity of drones becoming more widespread. In the US, planning is further ahead - witness NASA’s work on developing the necessary air traffic control systems, or the plans for a drone corridor between Rome and Syracuse in upstate New York.
Cities, however, have not had the time and resources to plan for drone operations, and the public has not yet had much opportunity to have its say.
Moreover, these stakeholder groups - technologists, operators, governments, cities - are not yet talking to each other enough in ways that advance practical, real-world testing, beneficial to all groups.
Last week, Nesta convened UK-based experts and stakeholders from across these groups to discuss the future of drones in cities - and to begin to piece together a shared vision for how their use should evolve.
There was widespread agreement on what benefits drones can bring to cities: not just quick and efficient deliveries, but a constellation of public service uses, from emergency services to infrastructure maintenance.
The experts agreed, too, on how the rollout of drones should be guided. Cities and citizens need to be at the heart of planning, to ensure that drones enrich the urban fabric, rather than blight it. Drones need to integrate well with infrastructure and other transport modes. They need to operate as part of an open and non-proprietary system to avoid technological lock-in, corporate monopolies and the privatisation of the sky. Haphazard, reactive, unplanned growth should be discouraged.
The group highlighted the value of large scale demonstrations that would pull together citizens, cities, regulators and technologists, to accelerate the development of real-world visions for and lessons in the drone space.
Finally, the participants identified key opportunities for Britain; from the country’s internationally-respected leadership in air traffic management, to its expertise in high-tech, high-value design, the UK is well-placed to benefit from the growth in drones and potentially help shape the rise of drones. And if it makes the right decisions, and establishes itself as the best place in the world to test integrated drone operations, the UK could be in line for a huge drone dividend.
Nesta is working to convene a consortium of pioneering cities in order to create an expansive and interconnected series of outcome-based funding opportunities. This will culminate in live, large-scale and complex urban drones system demonstration projects. These will push drone-related technological breakthroughs and ensure that cities and the public are at the heart of shaping how this technology integrates into their communities. They will bring together a wide-ranging set of public sector, research, regulatory and commercial stakeholders.
If you are in a leadership position within a UK city and you want to be part of this, reach out and let us know, by contacting Tris Dyson, Director of the Nesta Challenge Prize Centre on [email protected].