Drones in the city, a smart solution or a health risk?
Authors: Marianne Lefever and Gintare Norkunaite
A sky full of drones delivering packages, have you ever wondered what that might look, feel, and sound like? As more and more companies are experimenting with drones for last-mile delivery, it looks like it might become our new reality sooner rather than later. But what problems are we trying to solve exactly with this trend and what will be the impact on urban living?
A whole range of companies is experimenting with last-mile delivery by drones. Wing, an Alphabet company, just beat Amazon Prime Air to the game as Wing started actual drone delivery in Virginia at the end of 2019. Companies like UPS, DHL, and Drone Delivery Canada Corp have all launched their version of delivery drones. It is clear that everyone wants a piece of the sky-bound logistics network. This is not surprising since the drone service market is estimated to be $127 billion globally according to PwC with $13 billion in traffic services alone.
Photo: Route XL
As with any new technology we need to ask ourselves what the impact might be on our wellbeing and quality of life. If we are to design and roll-out a full-scale sky-bound logistics network, can we think about the potential side-effects? This can be hard as it is not our reality yet. However, try to imagine this: "It is a sunny spring day. You just found yourself a spot on a bench along a tree-lined street. It’s been a busy week and you really need to take five and catch your breath. As you settle in on your bench, you start to notice the constant humming overhead. There is a stream of drones carrying packages everywhere. It’s making it hard to relax, you notice. It almost feels like trying to find some peace and quiet under an industrial kitchen fan."
As cities are already dealing with severe levels of sound pollution today we might want to think twice before adding another stream of noise to it. Sound pollution is affecting our sleep patterns and mental wellbeing. It increases our adrenaline and stress levels and is linked to multiple cardiovascular diseases. Especially if drones would fly at night that would add to the ongoing sleep disturbance. We would need some clear guidelines on when and where drones could fly and how loud they can be if we want them to fly at all.
Have you ever heard of the cocktail party phenomenon? It is our brain’s ability to focus on one single stream of sound, e.g. a conversation, and filter out the rest of the noise, like trying to listen to your friend at a busy cocktail party. As we grow older or when we are tired and there is a lot of background noise, our brain starts to struggle with this. For the growing elderly population in cities, this means that having a conversation outdoors can be challenging. Add drones to the mix and it might exacerbate their social isolation as the sound is now coming from all directions. It will be increasingly hard to have a conversation or filter out the sound of an approaching car when crossing the street, for example.
Another effect we need to think about is safety. Adding a vertical layer of traffic will require even more attention from anyone on the street. Pedestrians and cyclists will have to watch out for cars, busses, each other and ascending or landing drones. Increasing the complexity of urban traffic this way will require us to rethink what our streets should look like. Will drones land on the sidewalk and take away space from the already pressured pedestrian space? Or should we think about dedicated landing spots, on rooftops perhaps? These are just a few examples of what a full-scale sky-bound drone network might look and feel or rather sound like for different groups of people.
Drones have many purposeful uses like delivering medical supplies to remote areas, weather forecasting, helping to locate poachers or carry out much-needed infrastructure inspections. Before we can say drones are the best solution for last-mile urban delivery too, we need to ask ourselves what problems we are trying to solve and is it worth the side-effects? An often claimed argument is that the growing parcel delivery market increases urban traffic and clogs roads. According to a French study that is widely quoted, 30% of urban traffic is linked to last-mile delivery. However, other studies, like these ones done in Vienna and Brisbane, estimate that parcel delivery probably makes up about 1% of urban traffic. There is clearly more data needed on how much last-mile delivery actually contributes before we can say drones are the answer and the traffic impact outweighs the side-effects.
However, there is a much more compelling supply chain argument. In the traditional delivery van scenario, last-mile delivery makes up 41% of the total logistics cost of e-commerce. With us, consumers, increasingly expecting free shipping and same-day delivery, companies are constantly looking to cut costs and increase speed. Drones might provide a much-needed answer as they are 40% cheaper and can avoid traffic jams. Knowing the potential health impacts of a fully deployed drone delivery network, we might ask ourselves which one is more important, our wellbeing or same-day delivery? Is this really what the consumer wants – at any cost – or would an educated consumer consider alternatives?
Some of these alternatives already exist. Here are three scenarios that explore current and future alternatives. The first one the widely tested e-cargo bike. Cities from London and Paris to Vancouver and Montreal are experimenting with e-cargo bikes and local depots to cover the last mile delivery. The bikes are zero-emission, safer than vans, and promote an active lifestyle for the employees driving them. They are able to transport parcels up to 350kg where drones are now experimenting with small packages up to 2.3kg. When introducing e-cargo bikes on a larger scale, we will need to provide more and wider cycling paths which would benefit all active transport in a city. The future of mobility is pushing us to rethink our streets so why not include e-cargo bikes in this planning process?
The second scenario requires a more systemic approach to how we re-organize our cities. The idea of the ’15-Minute City’ is gaining traction as Mayor Hidalgo is pushing it in Paris in her re-election campaign. London, Melbourne, Portland, and Ottawa are all experimenting with their own 15-Minute Neighborhoods. The core of the idea is that within 15min of walking or cycling from your home all your basic needs are covered. From your workplace to a grocery store, daycare, green space, and healthcare. It promotes the city as a collection of “villages” instead of large mono-functional districts. These neighborhoods could function around a central “citizen kiosk” as the French call it which provides community and cultural services. However, we could easily expand this idea and integrate an active mobility hub, bike repair, grocery pick up, a co-working hub, etc. This place could become the beating heart of a neighborhood and provide some concierge-like services making it an ideal location of parcel delivery and pick-up. So instead of delivering parcels to every home, they would be delivered at a central location per neighborhood where you need to pass by on an almost daily basis anyway. The delivery could be done by one of the autonomous electrical cargo ‘vans’ that companies like Renault are working on. This scenario might let e-commerce and consumer meet halfway so to speak.
The third scenario builds on a technological revolution that is not widely connected with any urban design impact today. And yet, it holds the potential to completely rethink urban logistics. Additive manufacturing, better known as 3D-printing is rapidly maturing. The applications vary from printing dental implants to entire concrete houses and even organic matter like meat. We could imagine that when you order something online, it is printed at one of the local additive manufacturing workshops around town. Instead of solving just the last mile logistics, this scenario could significantly cut costs and carbon emissions throughout the entire supply chain. From the additive manufacturing workshop, the parcels can be distributed by e-cargo bike or the workshop could be located in the ‘citizen kiosk’ from the previous scenario, who knows?
These scenarios come with their own set of challenges for sure. But they show there are alternatives we might explore. Before we jump into deploying a sky-bound network, we should think it through and map out the potential impact on urban life, the environment, and our wellbeing to avoid creating more problems than we are solving. We need to be crystal clear on the problem we are addressing and what the cost-benefit of our solution is. Otherwise, we might end up with a classic case of what architect Cedric Price captured so well in his quote: “Technology is the answer, but what was the question?”