I’ve been thinking about Eric Schmidt’s call for a discussion on the impact of drones, and while that focuses on privacy, it’s also a call to think about the coming regulatory framework that’s going to have to be hashed out for non-spying private and commercial drone aircraft. I think that’s a really important debate, because whatever we decide is going to shape the development of drone technology thereafter.
A big threat, I think, is the characterisation of drones as hobbyist aircraft, toys that are functionally little different from model airplanes. If that was the case presented to me as a lawmaker, it would be easy to partition of a couple of open parks as drone recreation areas and ban them outright from the rest of the city. The inherent risks - mostly I’m thinking of collisions with people, buildings, and the like - aren’t a palatable trade-off for a few hours’ fun for UAV enthusiasts.
To convince lawmakers that drones have a legitimate place in the city and society, we need to present them as useful tools. So, what possible jobs might a micro-UAV have in the city? (Aside from surveillance platforms, which naturally wouldn’t extend airspace to civilian use).
One idea I had was the idea of drones replacing cycle couriers. For a start, it addresses a specific need within the city - rapid transit of small physical goods - that drones are well-suited to serve. Drones can compete with cyclists for speed and they obviously avoid traffic issues. In general, unskilled labour is always replaced by machinery where possible, because machines perform these roles cheaper and more reliably. One of the major limitations of micro-UAVs is their limited flight time (around 15 minutes for a quadcopter if I recall correctly), but again, that’s broadly within the range needed for delivering a package across the city.
Similarly, cycle couriers perform a job that lends itself very easily to automation. Navigate to the Drone Delivery webpage, key in your details and your bank card. The drone is dispatched to A, picks up package, flies to B, delivers package. At both ends the package is digitally signed for and this information is communicated through the normal mobile network.
A basic drone delivery service doesn’t require much additional infrastructure. Physically, buildings would need some kind of rooftop landing pad, maybe marked out with a identifying glyph for easier navigation. Electronically, blanket coverage of power grids, cell networks and GPS meets the needs of our aircraft.
From here, you can start thinking about defined routes that drones would be able to fly along - sky roads - as well as top speeds, weight, load, flight protocols and all that other regulatory stuff that helps define the things we make.
However, If we plan to fill our skies with drones, our streets will be littered with their broken bodies unless we can stop them colliding with one another. Hopefully this can be solved with on-board crash avoidance systems, because the only alternative as I see it is a centralised air traffic control for city drones (which are already too small and flying too close to buildings for radar to be much use). Perhaps something using inference from mesh networks, I don’t know. Hopefully the low volume of traffic in the early days of drones will give us some breathing room to figure this out.