Cities should be preparing for a future of drones and could learn lessons from the mass adoption of cars in the 20th century when it comes to shaping urban areas, regulation and business, says innovation foundation Nesta's Flying High project

Drone over city

Cities should be preparing themselves for a future of drones in the sky above them

First came the horse and cart, then it was the automobile – and now we should be preparing ourselves for a future of drones.

Whether it’s for delivering Amazon parcels to doorsteps or transporting passengers in flying taxis, unmanned aircraft may not be as far away as many believe with a number of companies working on the technology.

The world’s first ever drone standards have now been introduced by the International Standards Organisation (ISO) to create a legal and ethical framework that could pave the way for mass adoption.

Professional services network PWC recently predicted the UK drone industry will contribute £42bn and 628,000 jobs to the UK economy by 2030, while Goldman Sachs estimate that drones worldwide will be a $100bn (£78bn) market by 2020.

UK innovation foundation Nesta believes cities, lawmakers and industry could learn a lot from the mass adoption of cars in the 20th century when working out how a future of drones might look.

Flying High, led by Nesta’s Challenge Prize Centre in partnership with Innovate UK, has studied this issue in depth with five UK city-regions – Bradford, London, Preston, Southampton and the West Midlands – to learn what these areas would like to see drones do in the future.

Olivier Usher, research manager for technology & innovation in Nesta’s Challenge Prize Centre, believes there are mistakes that could be avoided when it comes to shaping cities, regulation and business. Here he explains how.

future of drones
Olivier Usher, research manager for technology & innovation in Nesta’s Challenge Prize Centre


Cars shaped our cities. Let’s not make the same mistakes with drones

In 1908, the Model T Ford came on the market. As a car, it was nothing special – slow, underpowered, inelegant.

But, mass-produced and built from cheap parts, it radically changed the affordability of motoring.

Suddenly, motor vehicles became an economically feasible way to move people and goods.

Their numbers exploded and soon they were everywhere – both replacing older technologies like trams and horse-drawn carts, and carrying out new tasks that weren’t practical before, like carrying commuters to their workplaces from new, sprawling suburbs.

Today, we are faced with a transport innovation with similarly transformational potential – cheap and reliable drones, that could soon be performing a range of tasks in cities from inspecting infrastructure to delivering urgent parcels and maybe even carrying people.

The first Model Ts to come off the production line needed little more than a smooth surface to drive on.

Fast forward 110 years, and the basic set-up of a car has changed remarkably little – peel away the streamlined exterior and the sophisticated electronics of a modern car, and you still have four wheels, two rows of seats, an internal combustion engine and some gears.

20th century cars
Cars pictured in 1928 (Flickr/National Library of Ireland on the Commons)

But the environment has changed beyond recognition. Just like crowds are something more than a collection of individuals, traffic is qualitatively as well as quantitatively different from the cars that make it up.

And so, a huge array of physical and virtual mechanisms developed to help our cities cope with the massive uptake of automobiles.

As things stand, drone operations in cities are at a similar stage to cars at the turn of the 20th century – small-scale and heavily restricted.

Perhaps that’s how things should stay – but as a society we may want drones to do more.

Based on our work with UK cities in the Flying High project, as well as public polling, we know that wider use of drones by the emergency services is broadly popular – as are potential uses for the NHS or in safety-critical sectors like construction.

Uber Flying Taxi

More commercial use cases like package delivery or even flying taxis are more contentious, but could be part of the mix if we want them.

And if any of these are to go ahead, then society, the physical geography of our cities, and the business environment will need to adapt.


An evolving legal and regulatory environment for cars and drones

We’ll need government institutions to support, regulate, train and police drone users. Here, too, there are historical parallels.

Government bodies like the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency, local councils’ highways departments, and the Department for Transport – which is 100 years old next year – sprung up over the course of the 20th century to enable ever greater use of motor vehicles.

In the 20th century, Parliament passed laws around speeding, drink-driving, driver licensing, emissions standards and parking restrictions.

These set the common standards that stop the worst behaviour while providing an enabling legal environment for most behaviour.

To the motorist, these can sometimes feel like an imposition – who actually enjoys booking an MOT or renewing their photo card?

But these structures set the rules and maintain the infrastructure that allow cars to operate safely and at scale, and drones will be no different.

We’ll need laws and regulations if we want to enable greater drone use.

Let’s not forget that until 1896, cars had to be preceded by a pedestrian with a red flag – the alternative to the motoring laws we like to moan about is not blanket permission to do anything, but blanket prohibition of things we want to do.

We’re still at the red flag stage of drone operations in 2018.

Flights in built-up areas and around sensitive sites, from power stations to prisons, are severely curtailed.

drone standards
The International Standards Organisation has introduced the first ever standards regulation for drones

Many potentially beneficial uses are prohibited by default – with exemptions from the rules granted on a case-by-case basis.

Even modest increases in use would require legal and regulatory change.

And so, this century, Parliament will need to pass laws to decide how, where and how much drones can operate.


Cars created how cities look – future of drones shouldn’t do the same

The government and local councils built physical infrastructure for cars in the 20th century, including crash barriers, motorways, traffic lights, signage, roundabouts – even the bitumen surface of roads that replaced granite setts in our city centres.

The fabric of our streets was profoundly redesigned to enable heavy use of the motor car.

And with that, on-street parking and massive car parks began to dominate our streetscapes – at the expense of local businesses, pedestrians and cyclists.

Cars were unleashed on our cities without a great deal of long-term planning or foresight.

They often served those with money – and cost, dearly, those without.

Gradually, urban geography evolved to reflect the new reality. Some of it was good, but a lot was bad.

People moved to the suburbs, properties on main roads went from being prestigious to being blighted.

Rat runs criss-crossed our residential areas. Public transport declined and almost every tram or light railway in the UK was shut down.

We’ll need infrastructure for drones too, if we want them to operate at a large scale – both physical, such as landing pads or communications towers, and virtual, such as lanes in the sky for them to fly along.

But rather than a headlong rush to rip up our city centres for drone infrastructure, we need a more nuanced dialogue with the public about what we really want.


Companies created out of car adoption

Some businesses could easily have been predicted when cars came to market – dealerships, petrol stations, garages, motorway service stations and so on.

But a hundred years ago, who would have predicted the creation of Uber, Zipcar or GoCompare? Or the growth of online shopping enabled by self-employed couriers?

Uber, Uber driver employment rights
(Credit: Flickr/Mark Warner)

Drones, similarly, will lead to both obvious jobs, such as aerospace engineers or remote pilots – but the most transformational could be things we can’t even imagine today.

But even if it’s hard to envisage everything drones can do, we should nevertheless try to think ahead, and to be deliberate in the decisions we take.

The modern city – economically vibrant, sprawling and choked with pollution and traffic – was built by the car, and by the countless decisions taken over the past century to enable them.

Today’s cities might have looked very different if those decisions had been made more thoughtfully.

Might we have avoided the dual carriageway built over the gardens of Bristol’s Queen Square or the noose that Coventry’s ring road ties around its city centre?

Zipcar e-Golf, electric car, Zipcar
The Zipcar electric car fleet will launch this summer. (Picture: Amit Lennon)

Could we have kept our trams, not as a tourist curiosity in Blackpool, but as the heart of a low-carbon transport network in all our major cities?

Might Park Lane have remained the charming historic street its position on the Monopoly board suggests – rather than the traffic-choked dual carriageway it is in reality?


Cities in the driving seat for future of drones

Cars shaped our cities. As drone technology matures, we must ensure that it’s cities that shape the future of drones. And that means taking decisions differently.

City governments need to be in the driving seat of the decisions that get made – and need to have a role in governing the airspace above them.

Regulators need to think ahead. They can’t just respond to the pressures of the market.

They need to think beyond just whether a drone service can be operated out safely, but of what the broader impact – on privacy, on noise, on the environment – in their decisions about what to allow and what to curtail.

And the public needs to be part of the conversation, one where it’s not money that talks, but citizens.