Drone City

What are they all droning on about?

Alexandra Murphy Mills & ReeveHow long are you prepared to wait for a delivery – how long is too long? What would your answer have been 10 years ago? Makes you think, doesn’t it? Asks Alexandra Murphy, principal associate at Mills & Reeve.

Arguably, Amazon has got a lot to answer for in revolutionising the field of online shipping, from the launch of Amazon Prime in the UK in 2007, Amazon Locker in September 2011 and most recently, Amazon Prime Air, Amazon’s drone-based delivery system, making its first delivery in Cambridge on 7 December 2016.

The advent of drone technology surely has to be a game changer in terms of modern technology advances and the concept of the last mile delivery, but is the property sector ready for it?

Retrofitting

Despite the challenges with the technology, competing with adverse weather, limits on parcel weights and interference with air traffic control, what about the practical barriers to drone delivery? The major issues can be boiled down to the question, how do I actually get my drone delivery? There is no doubt that the best experience for the consumer is their package gracefully drifting down from the sky and landing right where they want it. This is the foremost challenge facing the built environment.

Whilst new buildings can be designed to embrace modern technology and to facilitate drones, can we retrofit our existing buildings? How can our buildings complement and enhance drone technology to propel the advent of drone deliveries?

We might be able to overcome the challenge with existing buildings using balconies or roofs. Amazon Prime Air are seen to use landing pads exhibiting the Amazon symbol which drones can recognise as a landing point using sophisticated GPS systems, whereas Swiss Post use infrared signals which are emitted from the landing pad.

Utilising roof spaces as drone delivery points may be a solution for some buildings such as large industrial warehouses which have the space to accommodate landing pads and the like, but it stills raises the challenge of how to actually retrieve the parcels – some human intervention is required here in terms of accessing the roof space to distribute the deliveries.

New building design is exploring the possible concept of drones that can actually access the interior of a building to deliver right to the point of the consumer or using landing platforms that are built into the sides of multi storey buildings. I must ask you, if you do nothing else today, take a look at the YouTube video showing the Dragonfly drone delivery concept launched by PriestmanGoode as part of the Great Festival of Innovation in Hong Kong in 2018.

The film depicts a plethora of luminous ultra high tech looking drones which launch from a boat and deliver to high rise buildings to an individual drawer which slides out of the side of the building right into the specific apartment. Whilst you might think you are watching a sequel to a Star Wars film or equally a scene from The Hunger Games, it is an inspiring look into what might be the future of drone technology, certainly for cities at least and how it can be integrated into building design as a main method of delivery.

Airspace

It’s not just the actual point of delivery that creates a challenge for the built environment. Similarly to electric cars, the main component of drones are the batteries on which they operate and which currently limit both operation time and what they can carry. Could the built environment provide a solution here in providing perhaps rooftop charging points? Amazon are ahead of the game here with the patented ‘Kharpal’ charging locations a top of electric poles.

Now being a lawyer, naturally, I couldn’t ignore one of the major issues facing drone technology posed by the built environment, that being the existing legal framework around airspace. The UK authorities have been refreshingly more forward thinking in opening up the regulatory framework to facilitate drone technology than our American counterparts, opening up the UK skies for trialling drone technology and the Civil Aviation Authority, CAA, are embracing the regulatory approvals in this area.

However, the key issue comes here actually in the form of property statute in the UK. It is fundamental concept of property law that a property owner owns the airspace above their property. The challenge for drones is that the extent of the ownership of the airspace is defined in good old ambiguous legal drafting as ‘up to the height which is necessary for use and enjoyment of the property’.

I’m sure when the Civil Aviation Act was drafted up in 1982, the issue of drone technology was not forefront in their minds, neither was it under the ancient latin maxim ‘cujus est solum, ejus est usque ad coelum et ad inferos’, the rights of the surface owner extend upwards to the heavens and downward toward the centre of the earth. Whilst the issue has been debated in numerous case law examples, perhaps existing property law needs to be considered here in terms of its compatibility with this new technology.

So in conclusion, there’s no doubt the built environment has a huge role to play in encouraging drone technology so perhaps it’s about time we took a birds eye view at our buildings and ask ourselves, are we primed for change?

Your comments

Read our comments policy here