UK startup Skyports is investing in London rooftop spaces with a view to building a drone infrastructure network.
Company bosses hope their ‘vertiports’ will become as ubiquitous in urban centres as dedicated bicycle storage and car parking spaces.
That vision relies on the promise of drone technology becoming a widespread reality in London: for urban deliveries and, eventually, passenger transportation and even urban infrastructure maintenance.
To date, Skyports has purchased the rights to 15 rooftops across the capital. Managing director Duncan Walker confirmed in an interview with Dezeen that the aim is to “scale that up to 80 or 100 over the course of the next 18 months.”
The company is appealing to London landlords by offering to cover the design, planning, and construction costs of any drone infrastructure, as well as paying rent for the space.
Betting on London embracing drone technology
Skyports is backed by Levitate Capital, the aerial technology investment firm that recently participated in a $16 million Series A round for Matternet, alongside Boeing, Swiss Post, and the Sony Innovation Fund. The California startup is currently facilitating medical drone deliveries in Switzerland.
It’s easy to see why the concept might be attractive to investors. The move to grab the rights to unused rooftops could turn out to be incredibly lucrative, particularly if retail giants such as Amazon get their way and drone deliveries become the norm. If unmanned autonomous transport does eventually take off, rooftop spaces are going to become precious commodities indeed.
But those are two very big ‘ifs’. Walker argues that London is lagging behind other major cities in terms of drone adoption, and he’s right. But the capital is cautious for good reason: London’s airspace is uniquely crowded and complicated. Multiple airports and heliports service the city and millions of people call it home, while the police and emergency services also need to be able to fly helicopters and other vehicles safely.
Knocking a drone out of the sky would be dangerous – but not as dangerous as a drone downing a helicopter or light aircraft in the city centre. Adding a network of autonomous flying robots into London’s transport mix isn’t going to be a simple process, particularly with regulations as they stand.
However, if recent announcements from the Department for Transport and Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) are anything to go by, UK skies and recreational drone flights are going to become increasingly regulated to ease safety concerns and make way for commercial drone applications.
Either way, it’s likely that Skyports will have to play a long game with its speculative real estate investments.
The company has acquired the services of London architects practice Barr Gazetas to work on designs for its vertiports, but it could be years before regular drone deliveries are allowed in the capital. Even then, emergency applications – from medical supplies to on-demand defibrillators – may be embraced before consumer goods take to the skies en masse.
It also makes little sense to design complex infrastructure – beyond attractive concept images to entice investors – as long as regulations and future hardware capabilities are in a state of flux, and could yet be influenced by unexpected events.
Matters of public opinion
Indeed, perhaps the biggest barrier to mass adoption of drone technology in London may be public opinion, which can swing suddenly for or against new technologies. Consider how much damage to US consumer confidence in driverless cars was caused by March’s two fatal accidents, according to this report, and this one.)
The CAA is bringing in mandatory safety tests and registration for recreational pilots from November 2019, after releasing research finding that 77 percent of UK citizens felt more regulation was needed in relation to drone usage.
But there are concerns beyond irresponsible pilots flying where they shouldn’t. In early August, Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro was the target of an apparent drone assassination attempt, in which explosives were attached to a commercially available platform and flown towards a ceremony he was attending in Caracas.
While such incidents may not be a model for future attacks, they are the kind of tabloid-baiting incidents that cause some sections of the media to portray new technologies as inherently dangerous, rather than as transformative and beneficial – as anyone who has seen the headlines about killer robots will be all too aware.
London has been the target of terror attacks in the recent past, as have countless other cities across the world. Public perception of drones would take several steps back if the capital had to endure an airborne attack.
Jonathan Nicholson, assistant director at the CAA believes that “Drones are here to stay, not only as a recreational pastime, but as a vital tool in many industries – from agriculture to blue-light services.” As a result, “increasing public trust through safe drone flying is crucial”, he said.
Internet of Business says
For Skyports, technology isn’t the barrier to turning London’s rooftops into buzzing hubs for drone transport and deliveries. Passenger drones are trialling in Dubai and Singapore, urban deliveries are taking off in Iceland and Switzerland, and companies around the world are refining Unmanned Traffic Management (UTM) systems to integrate drones into the airspace.
The bet is instead a cultural one, that urban centres will be open to change on a huge scale, and that public opinion won’t push too hard against the swarm of drones massing on the horizon.