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THE DRONES FILES #2: Will we (and our parcels) fly around on drones?

Is all that is technologically possible also truly desirable? While the Big Tech push to accelerate research on drones for people and goods trasportation, some thinkers stop and wonder: is this really what we want?

When it comes to drones logistics and delivery services, things are not as easy as they sound. For instance, a time that in the high-tech industry is considered jurassic – three years – separated the announcement of AirPrime.(the drone delivery service by Amazon) in 2013, and the first actual drop. A pack of popcorn was delivered in an XXL garden in the countryside, a few miles from the Amazon store in Cambridge in England in 2016. Because using drones for the transport of goods (and especially people) is a much more complex challenge than one would think. Drones logistics

All images are part of the Walled City project by photographer Andy Yeung



There are technical issues, to start with. Batteries normally allow for a maximum of 30 minutes autonomy. But mainly the problems are related to regulations: flying a drone on inhabited areas is normally not allowed. Drones logistics

For these reasons, companies are now testing drone deliveries mainly in rural areas.

It occurs on a daily basis for instance in Nevada with 7-Eleven dropping goods onto the large farms. And on private campuses: in the Virginia Tech one, owned by Alphabet (Google), burritos arrive thanks to drones. And above, it happens in China, where JD, the e-commerce giant, now has 230 million more customers thanks to drones flying on the countryside.

But the dream is home delivery in cities

It is here that Amazon is investing heavily. 64 patents in 2017, including aircraft, security systems, goods transfer methods, sensors that react to the movement and flying charging platforms .The latter, called AFC (aerial fulfillment center), are warehouses capable of flying over the inhabited areas. The idea is that drones will take off from here andjust descend vertically, to bypass issues related to battery life. Drones logistics

The race to conquer the sky, however, is mainly played on the transportation of people.

With Uber promising UberAir (4-person sharing transport drones) within 5 years in LA and Dallas. They fying cabs will first be driven a remote pilot. But will be driverless as soon as possible. The price will be similar to that of UberX. and the vision includes the creation of a skyport (the renderings of Humpheys and Partners are all over the web) with up to 200 airtaxi taking off per hour. Drones logistics

China vs US

Just as it is happening for the transport of goods, however, even when it comes to people the Chinese who somewhat ahead of the game. Last January, Chinese company Ehang welcomed the vice-mayor of Guangzhou, Wang Dong, on its drone-taxi. and chauffeured him up and down the city for 15 kilometers, at 130 km / h. Drones logistics

Stunt-like air baptisms

Its most aggressive competitor is the German company Volocopter, that holds the record for the first passenger-designed drone to ever fly above a city. Truth is, for the actual air baptism the 18 motors drone was driven by a remote pilot, and was unmanned (for safety reasons). Yet these are details. Because that stunt, which took place in Dubai in front of Crown Prince Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed, has earned the German startup an investment from Daimler. A move, from the giant car manufacturer, that is considered highly strategic.

And self-driving cars?

Because we must not forget about self-driving cars. For which now we no longer ask “if” but just “when”. And here there are those who imagine putting together the vertical and horizontal driveless transport. Like AirBus, which at the latest Motor Show in Geneva presented the concept car Pop.Up (designed by Italdesign). It is self driving and, hooked to a drone, it flies away.
 «I do not think drones represent a credible alternative to mobility», says MIT’s Carlo Ratti. «Even if the issues related to batteries and regulations were overcome, there are others that crash against common sense. For instance. To lift an object it is necessary to push onto a huge amount of air. Which causes wind and deafening noises. And do we really want to live with swarms of heavy, battery-powered objects flying over our heads?». Drones logistics

The advantages of a pragmatic approach

Ratti’s vision about drones is less visionary and more pragmatic. «Drones are very useful for building, maintaining, and monitoring infrastructures that are dangerous or difficult to access. They are precious when it comes to carry out a punctual emergency interventions. Especially when then need to be geo-localized in a precise and immediate way». For instance, on a highway. Drones logistics

Drones as monitors for city’s infrastrictures

As a matter of fact, Carlo Ratti Architects is working with ANAS (the Italian highway institution) on a Smart Road System. Pylons equipped with Wi-Fi, sensors, and recharge stations for drones will be built along selected stretches of motorways. Drones will take off from these poles and will monitor traffic, communicate with cars, provide instant support in emergencies, identify dangerous situations, bring tools and medicines. The CRA project will become a reality soon. «The first Smart Road in Italy will be the A2 ‘Autostrada del Mediterraneo’, in the stretch of about 130 km between Morano Calabro (Cosenza) and Lamezia Terme (Catanzaro). It will be achieved thanks to an investment of 250 million euros, also thanks to European contributions», Anas explains.

Less ambitions, more gains?

It is a vision that seems less ambitious. Yet one that makes perfect business sense. «The market of intelligent inspections (on roads, railways, gas pipelines, etc) is worth 27 billion dollars a year». says Alex Tepper, founder of Avitas Systems, GE’s dedicated spin-off. «Another 20 billion should be considered when adding the development of personalized artificial intelligence services». «With all due respect for Blade Runner’s fans», concludes Ratti, «it seems to me that drones will be relevant to improve existing infrastructure. While I cannot stop thinking that those who stage them as characters of breathtaking futures are doing so to support the interests of various lobbies. When it comes to technology, not all that is possible is necessarily desirable. And when it comes to drones, this is what we should keep in mind». Drones logistics

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