If you're trying to pick the next game-changing technology, drone aircraft might be it. All sorts of industries are clamoring to use miniature flying robots to do everything from tend crops and deliver packages to shoot Hollywood movies. Humanitarian organizations are just as eager to deploy them to send critically needed medical supplies to remote areas in the developing world.
But before drones can become a common part of everyday life, we've got a few questions to answer. One is how to keep them out of the way of bigger manned aircraft. Another, just as important question: Where will drones land and take off? We can't just let aerial vehicles set down anyplace that their remote operators choose, especially if it's in some random family's backyard.
The Pentagon already has a 150-acre airbase underway near El Paso, Texas for its military drones. But such sprawling facilities wouldn't make sense for private-sector flying robots, since part of their appeal is the potential for delivering stuff directly to people who need it. That's why visionaries are trying to develop droneports: specialized landing and takeoff facilities designed for small robotic planes.
Recently, British architect Norman Foster and his firm Foster + Partners – the company behind high-profile projects like London's Millennium Bridge and many airports around the world – unveiled plans to build the world's first such miniature airport for drones. The droneport's designed for rural Rwanda, where it would serve as a hub for drones carrying blood and medicines to rural areas that are difficult for ground vehicles to reach.
If you were expecting a miniature LaGuardia or Heathrow, guess again. The Foster droneport design is basically a gigantic kiosk open on all sides, with a roof of bricks attached to an arching frame to protect the drones from weather once they land and roll inside the facility. (Imagine a concert shell or picnic pavilion, and you've got the approximate idea.)
That minimalism is deliberate, since the idea is for it to be so simple that it can be assembled by local people, from a kit that would include the frame and a machine for making bricks from clay that they could dig up in the area.
Foster + Partners declined an interview request to provide any additional details about the design, which apparently is still being polished. But the firm did provide a prepared statement from Foster himself, who described Rwanda as "an ideal test-bed for the Droneport project" and said that it might have "massive impact" in terms of saving lives there.
The droneport initially would accommodate drones with a 10-foot (3-meter) wingspan that would be capable of carrying 22 pounds (10 kilograms) of medicine or supplies. Eventually, a second generation of aircraft about twice that size would be deployed, to transport spare parts and electronics to maintain the medical drones. The unmanned aircraft are being designed by a European consortium of roboticists, engineers, public health experts and other specialists organized by Jonathan Ledgard, a former journalist who's made a second career out of looking for ways to use technological advances to help people in Africa.
The idea of using drones to deliver medical supplies to remote areas isn't completely new. Palo Alto, California-based drone builder Matternet experimented with it in Haiti in 2012, and more recently has been testing a drone delivery system in the Swiss Alps that can transport a 2.2-pound (1-kilogram) package of medicines about 12 miles (19.3 kilometers). And in July, researchers successfully delivered medical supplies to a clinic in rural Virginia using a drone made by Australian company Flirtey.
That same sort of droneport might work in rural areas of developed countries such as the U.S. as well. But some think drones could be used in more densely developed cities and suburbs, too. Marcus Martinez, an architect with the Houston-based design firm Alloybuild, imagines even smaller droneports that would be incorporated into the upper floors of high-rise buildings, to allow miniature robotic helicopters of the sort envisioned by Amazon making deliveries to occupants.
To protect people at ground level from being hit by dropped passages, Martinez would landscape areas underneath the drop-off point to make it inaccessible to pedestrians.
"You also would need to have no-fly zones over places such as kids' play areas," Martinez says. "You've got to minimize drones' intrusion into the urban environment."
Amazon's "Prime Air" service could be available by 2017 or 2018 and Google's Project Wing is looking at a similar system. The Federal Aviation Administration must first come up with rules on use of commercial drones, but reportedly will have them finished by mid-2016.