To Move Goods and People, Transport Drones Will Need Investments in Basic Infrastructure

Air taxis and delivery drones are widely considered next-generation technology in the development of the burgeoning drone industry. While most commentators have drawn attention to a host of thorny regulatory and safety issues involved in establishing new aerial pathways for transporting goods and people, less attention has been placed on a far more elementary problem:  How to create and finance the complex transportation infrastructure needed to support this capability.

In a little noticed report published in 2019, the consulting firm McKinsey & Co. identified three key infrastructure elements required for success:

  1. Traffic-management infrastructure
  2. Physical infrastructure for receiving packages or landing vehicles, and
  3. Supporting technology infrastructure, such as charging stations, storage lockers and automatic doors for admitting drones into warehouses.

Current drone traffic management issues are fairly simple.  That’s because drones are limited to certain airspaces  – below 400 feet– and must be piloted remotely, within the visual line of sight, unless a waiver is obtained.  Most larger drones have a “detect-and-avoid capability” and with deft piloting by all parties, including manned aircraft, air collisions are largely avoided.

Future scenarios are more complex – and potentially more precarious.  Transport drones would be granted access to more airspace and would also operate beyond the visual line of sight.  Creating air transport schedules and pre-assigned routes and establishing right-of-way rules in overlapping airspace will become paramount.  Rather than rely on pilot navigational abilities, a more formal and regulated unmanned traffic management (UM) system, integrated with existing air and road traffic management systems, will be needed.  “Stakeholders [will] have to ensure that all UTM systems were interoperable and could communicate with each other, as well as with the [existing] air-traffic-management system,” the report notes.

As for physical infrastructure, the development of “vertiports,” where transport drones can take off and land and rest during periods of non-use (in effect, drone depots and hangars) is another major challenge, McKinsey argues.  The cost of vertiports could range from $2 million to $200 million,  and funding must be found.  Key cost variables might include vertiport size, the number and type of drone vehicles to be accommodated, vertiport location, and the type of building needed (for example, a rooftop port in an existing building vs. a stand-alone structure).  The number of vertiports needed might be comparable to the current number of  metropolitan subway stops  – perhaps 50 or 100, depending on the city size.  That’s a huge public and private investment challenge – one that governments and businesses anxious to exploit next-generation drone transports haven’t even considered, McKinsey argues.

And vertiports aren’t the only physical infrastructure needed.  Drones will also require access to charging stations, which could be located in the new vertiports or at special “vertistops” or low-cost docks.  Warehouses, lockers and other storage facilities will also be needed.  Some might be co-located with the vertiports, while others are integrated into existing commercial enterprises, for example, UPS centers or local convenience stores specifically contracted for this purpose.

In general, air mobility planners aren’t being realistic about the timetable for developing a fully operational drone transport system, McKinsey argues.  While it may take 10 more years for air taxis to be properly designed and tested to become fully operational, developing the transportation infrastructure to support them could take far longer.  Governments and the private sector need to begin making these infrastructure investments now, well before the next-generation transport drones are considered safe and functional, McKinsey warns.  Otherwise, transport drones, especially passenger drones, could become the proverbial “bridge to nowhere” – ready to fly, but with “no place to take off and land.”

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