Drone Ports: Their Time is coming….Maybe
Chris d Craiker AIA/NCARB
Before the Covid Pandemic, a trickle of homeowners and apartment tenants had delivery trucks combing their streets dropping off internet-purchased packages. The Pandemic has accelerated the trickle to a flood, not only the delivering but the need for safe, secure storage upon drop-off. My firm has been working around the Bay Area with many apartment management companies who are going nuts with all the package deliveries to their tenants. A suburban home delivery is one thing, but how do you deliver to an apartment tenant? Leave it out in the hallway? A complex of any size needs a secure room and a way of alerting the tenant that their package has arrived and must be picked up ASAP. Managers are having to designate larger and larger rooms for the massive number of daily deliveries for tenants not holed up working remotely in their apartments.
But that’s only part of the problem. Pick-up and delivering packages quicker and cheaper are the big challenges. Helicopters? Self-driving cars? Robotic vehicles? UAVs, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles or drones, are the obvious candidates but they have to have a place from which to takeoff and to land.
Thus, ‘Drone Ports’ are on the horizon. Such prototypes are in the works now for the delivery of vital cargo, such as medical supplies delivered to save precious time and avoid typical gas-powered transportation. Drones have a bad rap. They’re considered privacy invaders, spying on us from above, or as war machines taking out renegades. But they could be used more for humanitarian assistance.
Drones can be more environmentally sensitive in delivering packages to Third World countries or rural American sites where deliveries and access is difficult. But safety and infrastructure are also challenges. The future will probably be a mixture of central and satellite delivery hubs. It has to be technologically integrated with the merchants and carriers for smooth performances.
These drone ports could be like filling stations for the neighborhood, and perhaps a community health or technology center. They could be the post offices of the future. Universities such as Cambridge, MIT and others are studying these options now. A drone port campus is being built in Belgium that will officially open this year. A group of domestic and foreign companies including Internet giant Amazon are trying to find safe and flexible integration of “U-space” drones flying at low altitudes.
Over nine years ago, Amazon announced they would be sending delivering packages by drone within 30 minutes of ordering. Unfortunately, US airspace regulations have kept these drones grounded. The combination of federal laws, state laws, local city laws are all working against one another creating a regulatory nightmare. There is the FAA Part 135 Certification that allows them to use U-Space but still, obtaining airspace authorization from local governments is difficult.
Amazon has had mixed success in releasing new products like smart phones, grocery scanners and Alexa-type devices. Walmart has been experimenting with drones that will fly and drop a package in a box tethered to a parachute. Such aerial agility is difficult to believe it will work.
The full ecological effect of drones flying over neighborhoods and affecting wildlife is still under scrutiny. As expected, birds don’t take kindly to the little flyers and have been known to attacked them as food. The UAV delivery market is valued at potentially $22 billion a year and whatever company can come up with delivering your French fries in 30 minutes will win.
Chris d Craiker AIA/NCARB uses UAVs for surveying buildings and aerial site photography