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12 Feb 2021

The Future Built Environment – What will our future cities look like and what issues do we need to consider now?

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The pandemic has been a particularly testing time for most business, but the one sector that has thrived in these difficult times is the technology sector. It is not just the Amazons and Telsas' of this world but the nascent unmanned aircraft system (UAS) (or drones) which have been soaring.

UAS have been in use for more than a decade and the safe use of drones is regulated by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA). The regulatory framework is complex and there are number of restrictions both to manned and unmanned aircrafts which require licences and permissions, but the construction sector has successfully navigated through these requirements to use drone technology to its advantage. The aerial view and spatial awareness provides a range of benefits to construction projects – it improves communication, allows access to hard-to-reach places, surveys are fast-tracked, it provides accurate measurements, increases safety, and saves time and resources. This is just the beginning for drone use in the built environment and we are not far off from drones being an extension to existing public service infrastructure.

In the last year, we have seen this technology take another leap forward in the medical delivery sector such as Flylogix and Isles of Scilly Steamship Company partnering for a drone freight flight between UKs Land’s End airport and the Isles of Scilly delivering NHS medical supplies, Royal Mail partnering with a consortium of drone companies for the first UK drone delivered parcel to a remote lighthouse on the Isle of Mull, and Argyll and Bute Health and Social Care Partnership along with its drone delivery partners conducted trial drone deliveries between a hospital in Oban in mainland Argyll and the Isle of Mull.

These flights have been a significant milestone for unmanned aviation and if we gaze into our crystal ball, we can see how this technology will transform the way we move, and it will ultimately redefine with way we interact with our built environment. As the technology becomes more integrated into our lives, these complex aviation and operational rules will need to be balanced with other legal and regulatory issues. Here are some of the key considerations:

The airspace battle

If we are envisaging a society where anyone can order a drone taxi or order a take-away delivered by drone, there will be hundreds of aircraft in the air. To cater for this there needs to be a safe method of controlling air traffic management. Currently air traffic is controlled through a control tower whichs speak directly to pilots in aeroplanes. This would not be feasible for autonomous vehicles. Communication will need to be through the new concept of the Internet of Things (IoT) which brings connectivity to virtually everything via device-to-device communication.

The legislative framework governing UAS and air traffic control will need to consider the different stakeholders involved and not just those manufacturing and operating UAS, but also other airspace users such as recreational drone users and flying clubs.

The airspace and air traffic management will need to work seamlessly with the demands of society. It will be interesting to see how the “Arrow Drone Zone” in Reading, the first UK commercial drone corridor, overcomes the barrier of unrestricted airspace where drones and general aviation share the skies.

We are keeping a watching brief on the developments to the Air Traffic Management and Unmanned Aircraft Bill 2019-21, which seeks to modernise airspace management and air traffic licensing, and to introduce new powers to tackle the unlawful use of UAS.

Security and Privacy

Privacy and security are a growing concern for today’s society and these are self-evident when discussing the use of UAS, which include data-capture capability including video cameras, microphones, and GPS.

The data captured is likely to be covered by data protection laws (Data Protection Act 1998 and/or 2018 and General Data Protection Regulation) especially where a commercial drone operator holds a Permission for Commercial Operations (PfCo) that allows them to sell footage or images. The Information Commissioner’s Office provides guidance to drone operators on these issues but given the fall out over big tech privacy concerns there are gaps which will need to be filled to ensure protection against these privacy concerns and other nefarious activities including cyber-security risks.

One way of dealing with this issue is the use of blockchain based IoT where data is decentralised on the blockchain and secured through cryptography which means the data cannot be altered. This ledger technology would enable encrypted secure communications and alleviate some concerns about security, and we will see a greater partnership between aviation and the mobile telecoms industry to support our future built environment.

Liability Issues

In 2019 in Switzerland, a drone delivering lab samples to a medical facility crashed in close proximity to a children’s playpark where children were playing at the time. Thankfully, no one was injured, but this highlights just one of the serious liability issues facing the UAS industry.

The following aspects will require consideration by UAS stakeholders and the insurance industry:

  • Liability for loss or damage: Third party liability is governed by the Civil Aviation Act 1982 (CAA 82) which regulates drone operators’ liability for damage/harm to ground-based third parties. It imposes strict liability on the drone owner where material loss or damage (including personal injury) is caused to any person or property.
  • Mid-air collisions between UAS and manned aircraft: the CAA 82 does not cover mid-air collisions. Liability in relation to this would need to be assessed under common law principles of negligence.
  • Lost cargo: The Montreal Convention 1999 (and secondary legislation) imposes strict liability to the drone operator, subject to certain limited exceptions.
  • Intellectual Property: This is an innovative manufacturing sector and intellectual property, and cyber threats is a growing concern.

As the industry evolves, drone manufacturers and operators will continue to face increasingly complex and high value exposure. Collaboration will be required between stakeholders to ensure the safe and responsible use of this technology along with comprehensive liability coverage.

Building Design

Over the years we have seen changes to how rooftops are used. Gone are the days when rooftops predominately housed plant equipment. If you look at aerial views of any major cities, you will see a significant number of green and entertaining space. The next stage of the evolution will be a profound change in the design and construction of buildings. Rooftop will require landing pads, charging points, and drone ports. Existing buildings will require adaptations to accommodate this infrastructure. All this will need to be balanced with the need for reducing noise pollution and emissions and to ensure privacy if drones are hovering close to windows and private space.

Not only will the buildings themselves change, but the way cities develop will transform. Growth and expansion will be less constrained to linear development like we have seen with traditional infrastructure such as rail and automobile. There is more likely to be organic growth in line with economical societal and cultural demands.

Conclusions

The possibilities of this new technology are radical and will permeate all aspects of the built environment. There are huge benefits not least as we have seen in the medical sector, but also in the growth of our cities. There will be fewer constraints afforded by linear growth and greater connectivity across communities, but this new environment is not without hurdles and all stakeholders, manufactures, operators’ consumers and policy makers will need to mitigate the real concerns of security, privacy, airspace usage and liability.