Dealing with drones: is the future of mobility hanging in the air?

by Charles Devroye - Communications Officer | minutes read

According to the Canadian philosopher and scientist Marshall McLuhan, every solution to a problem creates new problems. Take drone technology for example: while it has the potential to solve a number of urgent mobility and transportation problems our society is facing today, it also raises a number of new questions and issues, ranging from social acceptability to air traffic safety.

 

Looked at from a purely theoretical point of view, the scope of future applications for drone technology, commercial and otherwise, is quite extensive. To begin with, there is a huge potential for using drones in the context of urban logistics, where they could supplement the existing value chain over the first and/or last mile. The rewards could be particularly substantial for that last mile separating a delivery from its recipient, since it is simultaneously the most expensive and the most complex to manage.

Then there is the use of drones for remote sensing, in order to meet certain supervisory needs. Here the application potential ranges from environmental applications, such as air quality control, to urban services, such as traffic management and infrastructure monitoring. Another, more specific field where the use of drones could prove hugely beneficial is the transport of equipment for emergency and rapid-response services.

Finally, and this is of course where controversy kicks in, there is the use of drones for actual human transportation purposes. By 2025-2030 already, the dream of the flying car, strictly reserved for science fiction up till now, is set to turn into reality.

Solving the challenge of social acceptability

Apart from raising some eyebrows, this use of the drone as an autonomous aerial taxi also raises some tough but interesting questions. First and foremost: are we ready to accept and allow not merely packages being delivered to us by drones, but also having ourselves transported by a drone from one place to another? And even if we ourselves refuse to use these drone taxis, would we agree to be flown over daily by tens or even hundreds (not to mention thousands) of drones, for whatever purpose?

In order to make drones (more) acceptable for people, we must be able to prove to them that drones do not represent a nuisance but a means of making mobility more fluid. And thus of improving everyone’s daily quality of life. Consequently, our thought process should be geared more towards people’s needs and the potential services we can make available to them, rather than focusing mainly on questions of technology.

Tackling the issue of air traffic safety and fluidity

If drones are to make mobility more fluid, while keeping us comfortably safe and secure, drone traffic will have to be closely monitored and intelligently managed. This issue is therefore first and foremost a matter for Air Traffic Management (ATM). As drones are likely to represent a very fragmented and large-scale form of traffic and as such simply impossible to manage without automation, a highly automated infrastructure system will have to be put into place. Advanced technologies such as artificial intelligence will make it possible to manage different constraints in terms of density, conflict detection and resolution, flight plan understanding, etc.

Finally, the fact that drone traffic management requires very large volumes of data to be exchanged, also raises the issue of collaborative governance and increased cooperation between all the different parties involved in drone transport. In order for drone technology to successfully deliver on its promise of sustainable, safe and secure transport, all of these parties will need to commit to and guarantee compliance with safety rules.

This blog post was largely inspired by an ‘Insight’ on Urban Air Mobility (UAM), published on our corporate website. You can read it in full here.

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