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Drones won’t overfly our cities with parcels until formidable regulatory concerns are overcome. Even in 2040, surface-based logistics will be more important.


In 2018, the UK regulatory environment remains rather unfriendly to airborne drones. A recent government announcement requires that UK drones must now be flown closer to their owners than before, and reduces the weight limits that such drones can carry (down to 250g) without having an on-board pilot.

Since 2009, CAA regulations have prevented UK drone pilots from flying any closer than 150 metres to a built up area, or 50 metres from any individual person or property – rules which in themselves make the notion of routine online deliveries from the skies pretty fanciful for now, at least in our big cities.

196_drones_pulquote_270x59By 2040, it’s plausible that at least some of these limitations will have vanished. But fears of technology, whether or not justified, can cause regulation to persist for decades. For example, the Red Flag Act of 1865 required a person to walk in front of a motorcar (then a novelty) with a red flag to warn pedestrians of an oncoming vehicle. Incredibly, this legislation was in place for over 30 years. In retrospect it looks like an overreaction. Perhaps current legislation governing UK drones will look equally silly to city dwellers in 2040. But the UK regulations have already been in place for nearly a decade, and a rising fear of mid-air collisions combined with a new preoccupation with privacy seem to have caused regulation to get tighter, not looser. The noise that drones make could also force further regulation – for example, a night-time ban similar to that operated at Heathrow for piloted aircraft.

Added to these public rules are the private rules which individual landowners might elect to enforce their air rights. Those types of restrictions already exist, and are growing. For example, the National Trust enforces a no-fly zone over its land unless you get explicit permission. In London, flying a drone in a Royal Park is also typically not permitted; and some local authorities (for example, Leicester City Council) have a zero tolerance policy to flying drones over their land.

Landowners are also able to use technology to stop drones from flying over their airspace, for example to protect their privacy or intellectual property rights, such as unauthorised filming of a football match. Convexum, for example, offers this technology to its clients.

Nevertheless, it does seem likely that there will be a significant increase in the use of drones eventually. CBRE has written extensively about their potential and PwC have recently claimed that there will be 76,233 drones in the skies in just 12 years’ time but only 11,000 of these will be for logistics use (delivering all those parcels).

Figure 1: Estimated number of drones in UK skies in 2030, by sector

196_Drones_figure 01_Graphic_746x300
Source: PwC, 2018

This perhaps sounds a lot, but it’s actually a drop in the ocean. It’s roughly one drone for every 6,000 people in the UK at that time, which is an awful lot of shopping for one poor machine, especially if it’s limited to 250g per delivery (a quarter of a bag of sugar). Similarly, if all of the 11,000 drones were to deliver all of the two billion parcels delivered in the UK annually, each drone would have to deliver 500 parcels each day. Even if drones are able to make multiple stops, this volume of deliveries sounds rather unrealistic, suggesting that surface transport will be the dominant logistics solution mode in 2030, and therefore very possibly also in 2040.

More widely, British cities are certainly getting to grips with the potential benefits of drones, as a recent NESTA study showed. But, as we argue above, the study also identified key obstacles in addressing low consumer confidence, the technical and regulatory challenges, and a lack of alignment among the various stakeholders around the UK’s objectives for these machines. We’re confident these problems will in the end be resolved – it’s a question of ‘when’ not ‘if’. But city residents will need to be brought into the debate.

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Nick Wright
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