The Path to commercializing drones in cities and why addressing 3 key issues IS necessary
Wassaf Akhtar Mohammed | 15/04/2022
A city has roads and bridges, traffic lights and Radars to facilitate the movement of vehicles. Law enforcers and State departments maintain law and order in mobility by enabling technologies to build the right incentives that allows the communities to flourish.
A new industry is now on the cusp of revolutionizing mobility. The idea is to raise humanity from Ground to Air inside cities, moving people and cargo from point A to point B in matter of minutes instead of Hours. Time as we know will come to a standstill when this happens. But the million-dollar question still remains, how do we make it socially, economically and technically feasible? Why is it really challenging to make this work in a highly regulated environment such as this? The demand for such services is still unclear, what do people want? How much will they pay for it? How do we safely integrate UAV’s in our national airspace without posing a substantial threat from day one?
There are three key challenges that needs attention before deploying these Technologies. They are:
1. Social/Political Challenges:
· The Problem
Questions have been raised, law reviews, and web forums for years: Can I prevent a drone from flying above my home? Is a drone trespassing? Is it going to be noisy? These are difficult questions that central aviation authorities should look at it now, even as they begin allowing drone operators to do routine drone operations. Drone trespass cases will only proliferate nationwide.
There’s one way — drone easements above public roads — that protects private property, protects central and state actors from lawsuits, while promoting commercial drone services.
Land owners, companies, school officials, and other associated property owners don’t want the interference, loss of privacy, or noise/visual pollution associated with drone flights. Trespass case is a remedy to prevent intrusions into the airspace immediately above your property. Hobbyists and industry suffer because central and state governments need to formalize their roles. It’s difficult still for drone entrepreneurs to create business plans — –and for investors to trust those plans — –when every homeowner flown over represents a threat of trespass.
For a century, real estate developers in cities bought and sold airspace. The IT department expressly defines surface airspace as land and real property — –you’re taxed if you sell it. So long as aviation regulators refuse to formalize federal-state sharing of authority over drone operations, the industry will suffer. The regulators need to find a way to share authority with state and local authorities. The agency needs to recruit state, local, and tribal governments to experiment with ways to regulate drone operations. The agency also needs to set up a subcommittee of state and local officials and drone advocates to recommend trespass and other state laws that would apply to drone operations.
Despite the efforts, the drone trespass issue will only grow as drone operations expand and the law develops incrementally in the courts. State legislatures establishing drone easements above public roads would instantly open up millions of miles of drone highways, drone jobs nationwide. Central and state governments could share the Airspace leasing revenue and help fund the infrastructure needed for drone deliveries.
2. Technical challenges:
· The Problem
Drones offer promises on demand of movement of people and cargo, that can dramatically increase the capacity of our transportation system reducing delays, impact on environment and increasing the quality of life. To keep these vehicles operating safely in close quarters, millions of decisions would need to be made in the vehicles, on the edge and in the cloud. Decision making by humans or machines can only occur with current, accurate and secure data. Diverse and dynamic data on weather, ground infrastructure, flight infrastructure are needed wherever these decisions are made.
To achieve this we must enable a web like ecosystem to support Advanced Air mobility, a network node with a combination of 5G and Edge computing that enables drones to go Beyond visual line of sight (Current Radio line of sight is limited to maximum 2 NM) and make decisions on the go. We are talking about decisions that need to be made in order of less than 10ms (One way from nodes to UAV’s). Thousands of 5G network nodes powered by Edge computing must be installed across cities to allow drones to fly safely.
Another technical challenge is the digitization of the airspace. By enabling digitization, we could allow thousands of vehicles to maintain situational awareness and remain safe regardless of the complexity of operational environment. This is a radical transformation and Unmanned Traffic Management (UTM) sits in the middle of this coming evolution.
Following Digitization of Airspace, Drones must evolve in their design and specs to at least deliver a 20km roundabout trip under one single battery pack with an additional 10 km reserve trip to ensure the mission is carried out safely and successfully.
Additional technical challenge would be the real estate challenge. How will a drone “know” exactly where to land? The idea of having “helipads” for the drones to land and drop their package has been put forth. Other ideas such as an app with GPS locating ability would “call” the drone to the person’s phone. Either way, we must find a way to program specific coordinates that are deemed “safe landing spots”. These could be strategically located throughout the city where a drone will land, drop off the package, and resume flight (Gross). Customers then pick up their packages from this specific location rather than at their door. Delivery to a customer’s doorstep raises the legal issue of permission for drones to land in public areas.
3. Economic challenges:
· The Problem
Amazon’s long-awaited drone delivery service, Prime Air, will cost a whopping $63 per package in 2025, according to internal projections viewed by Business Insider. If Amazon sends a parcel through its own logistics network, it costs roughly $3.47 per package, according to estimates from supply chain consulting firm MWPVL International. That’s a whopping 18 times more than the price it pays to deliver by air. How do we then compete with ground delivery. Current cost model per package of $63 is split amongst the U-space service provider, Air tax to the Government, one drone operator, Fleet management software, building utility costs, electricity, storage facilities etc..
As the program realizes with economies of scale we will expect to see long term reduction of costs in delivery as low as 2.66$ per package (As low as Ground delivery) and a strong environmental benefit with the reduction of vans on the roads doing deliveries (A cost analysis of Amazon Prime Air (Drone Delivery by Adrienne Welch Sudbury1 and E. Bruce Hutchinson). To achieve those figures due to economies of scale, drones need to be operating round-the-clock (three 8-hour shifts) and would need to deliver 205 packages hourly to achieve this total. With the average of 2.5 trips per hour (= 60 minutes divided by 24 minutes/trip), 82 drones are needed every hour. This is the maximum for peak periods. During non-peak periods, deliveries can be accomplished by operating fewer drones or fewer hours.
Governments both state and central need to erect infrastructures like position as a service, 5G and high computing power at the edge to support as many drones per hour in a single city to make it economically feasible. Heavy investments have to be made from ground up in digitizing the infrastructures in cities. We need smart infrastructure.
Until we can fully digitize the airspace above us, build the infrastructure, regulate the societal and political norms and understand what’s safely flying in the sky, we will not be able to actualize the vision of advanced aerial technologies, regardless of how accessible it becomes. The future we have gives us the freedom to move. It will remove gridlock and it will move more people — we have to take it to the air. Cities, states and countries who are at the helm of their peak of eliminating these 3 main barriers will become leaders of tomorrow’s aerospace communities.