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Do we really want drones in our cities?

Thursday, November 3, 2022

A recent Techcrunch article has argued that drones while having certain use cases, don’t seem practical for delivering packages in the city. Though Smart Mobility usual focuses on transport with wheels on the ground this raises significant questions that relate to city planning, logistics, and accessibility.

With over 30% of CO2 coming from the transport sector and increasing online shopping and delivery requirements, we have every reason to explore air transport for emission-free logistics and passenger transport. That, at least, is the argument for drone deliveries and air taxis. But what would this really look like? Do we expect massive noisy drones flying through the city, dropping packages on our lawns, or air taxis taking passengers for a meeting somewhere in the city? The article doesn’t see this happening anytime soon.

For starters there exists significant regulatory and liability challenges to flying drones through the city to deliver any last mile solution. Even technically it seems currently impossible to ensure safety in the complex city environment. Nobody wants a drone falling on their head. Even if safety could be solved by technological advancements, how about noise, or privacy? Additionally, like any robot delivery, there is a practical problem with the delivery of the project, and this difficulty is only increased when delivering from the sky.

On the other hand, logistics in suburban and rural areas such as sparsely populated areas, and island areas seem more suitable for such services. This where most commercial drone delivery services are happening. Wing has commercially introduced its service in the US, Finland, Australia, and soon Ireland. Manna, an Irish startup has been collaborating with supermarket chain Tesco to deliver food and groceries in suburban areas of Dublin in Ireland. In Sweden there is the first beyond-line-of-sight pilot project for getting groceries to islands in the rural municipality of Norrtälje with Swedish startup Aerit, research institute RISE, and supermarket chain ICA.

Outside food and grocery delivery, drone deliveries already find applications with specific use cases, such as within the healthcare sector. Drones can be very efficient at transporting lab samples, and blood between hospitals considering the priority and time-sensitivity of those payloads. Drones have been used by emergency services to send defibrillators and saving lives. Zipline has been using its long-distance drones to send high-priority deliveries to isolated areas where land-based delivery would be inconvenient. As said, those deliveries are high-priority and sometimes are about life and death.

Passenger drones, i.e., air taxis, have similar challenges as logistic drones such as safety, liability, and noise in the urban environment. They have similar capacities as self-driving road taxis with 2 – 6 passengers. Considering that it requires a starting and landing platform, i.e., the so-called vertiports, air taxis are far less flexible in comparison with self-driving taxis which can go whenever and wherever. Further, they are likely to be very expensive, which might make them little more than personal helicopters for rich people.

Personal comments 

While it is easy to make a demo to attract interest, such as the first drone delivery by Amazon in 2016, and the Volocopter demonstration of air taxi services in Singapore in 2019, the challenges remain enormous, as reported in the article. On the other side, we are facing the urgent need for sustainable transformation to a fossil-free society, and the underused air space may play a role in supporting such a transformation.

Drones, regardless of who has been championing them, do seem to be finding a place. They might not take over the skies of our cities anytime soon, or ever, but they are finding a niche, especially in rural logistics, as demonstrated by the 200,000 commercial deliveries by Wing. Also on the optimistic side, stakeholders are working hard to make things happen such as the EU harmonized U-Space and many other ongoing initiatives. Sweden, for example, has a demographic trend of people moving to suburban and rural areas, not to mention the sparsely populated northern part of the country and its many islands.

The main issue is a balance between reaching global climate goals while at the same time considering the UN sustainable development goals on equality and accessibility. Perhaps we could reduce emissions dramatically by filling our skies with drones carrying packages and people, but perhaps at the cost of livability and equal mobility in our cities.

Written by Lei Chen, 
RISE Mobility & Systems