Many have come to associate drones with the looming unmanned aircraft deployed in the defense industry, but as technology continues to improve drones have gotten smaller and progressively less expensive. Consumers can now purchase their very own drone for as little as $600 or less and the technology is already proving to be useful for a wide variety of purposes, including possible uses for architects in everything from site analysis to construction.
However, this technology could have much broader consequences on not only the airspace above our streets, but also in how we design for increasing civilian and commercial drone traffic. Just as other technologies such as cars and security surveillance have shaped our urban infrastructure, so too will an emerging network of infrastructure for pilotless technology. Particularly as drones become ever more precise and nimble, opportunities arise for their increased use in urban areas. If these devices can be programmed to learn from repeated maneuvers with the use of cameras and sensors, it is not unrealistic to say that they could soon learn how to navigate through increasingly complex vertical cities. But if drones become fixtures of our urban environment, what impact will they have on exterior spaces? And could they become as ubiquitous in our city’s skies as cars on our streets?
Drone technology in cities may take a number of decades to fully develop, as designers of smaller drones currently struggle to incorporate the battery life and power required to navigate the unpredictable wind patterns created by tall buildings. However, assuming technology continues to improve, we could begin to see drones used in cities for everything from delivery services to window cleaning. Curiosity for such services was first sparked last year after Amazon’s unveiling of a new delivery system using drones, and since then the uses for drone technology has become increasingly promising. Uses in the architectural realm include site analysis by realtors and architects in order to stitch together photos for 3D maps, monitoring construction site progress, producing dramatic photography of completed projects, and much more. As other industries begin to make use of this emerging technology, an increasing number of drones will carry out services hundreds of feet above our streets, and we currently lack the necessary infrastructure to benefit from and sustain this increased aerial traffic. Independent urbanist, designer and futurist Liam Young tells City Lab, “When you have services coming at people from different cross-sectional heights, you can’t have a city planned solely around the ground. Buildings would have to adapt to the kinds of visual cues and parameters those drones are programmed to respond to.”  The task of creating visual cues for drones in cities is particularly complex and is an area still under development.
The acrobatic moves that some smaller drones can be programmed to perform often rely on powerful sensors placed around the area in which they are flown. In order for a drone to be called “smart” and fly on its own it must have advanced processing capabilities to analyze its environment in real time. Some of these visual cues such as QR codes are simple, whereas the ability to identify shapes and track movements is far more difficult. Urban three-dimensional space designed with drones in mind could address some of these obstacles by providing locations for sensors and consistent access to wireless networks for drones to maintain communications. Wireless signal attenuation caused by tall structures and even materials such as glass has already proven to be an issue in urban areas, and improving these communication services will be a crucial step in encouraging better drone infrastructure. Architects will play an important role in designing cities that appropriately respond to this unprecedented multidimensional urban space, making buildings that work to facilitate drone navigation and communication rather than inhibit it.
Some have already begun to creatively envision how cities could adapt for this increasing array of technological uses for airspace, including Liam Young in his drone-based art installations. As many such visions of the future suggest, the infrastructure designed around drones could give architects a chance to reimagine how exterior vertical surfaces are used to suit the needs of drones. The devices would most likely require charging docks at regular dimensions, and if they are used for shipping, one could imagine drone delivery docks on each floor of tall buildings.
As for how drone technology could further change our urban experience, driverless vehicles have long been a staple of depictions of the future, and some researchers speculate that if driverless cars become a reality, driverless aircraft could soon follow.  Smaller drone technology could be the key to unlocking the potential of larger pilotless vehicles, and even developing science fiction’s long-awaited flying cars. This reality could be even closer than we imagine, as some Boeing and Airbus jets already take off, land and brake to a stop without human hands on the controls. Just as architects have already contributed to the notion of a technology-filled city with driverless vehicles, exemplified by BIG’s proposal for the Audi Urban Future Award, architects may also play a role in developing such an infrastructure for urban airspace. Responding to how pilotless vehicles navigate cities is essential if we are to create safe and flexible spaces that change based on traffic patterns and time of day.
All of these speculations about drones in our urban environment raise important legal questions regarding the ownership of three-dimensional space in cities.  The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) already regulates consumer remote-controlled aircraft to a maximum height of 400 feet. Amazon and many other commercial interests are still waiting for the FAA to grant permission and establish regulations regarding the use of drones, and without these laws in place it is difficult to predict how the technology will continue to progress. However, many daring filmmakers and hobbyists have proven that it is difficult to enforce these regulations, prompting lawmakers to consider how enforced provisions would be put into practice. In the coming years, we may witness an increasing number of legal battles over the rights to airspace just as conflicts ensued with the emergence of automobiles at the time of the Model-T.
Some urban designers have already proposed rough ideas for possible zoning laws for drones. A post on his blog Humanitarian Space by Mitchell Sipus, an urban designer who has worked in Kabul and Mogadishu, reveals an early attempt at creating possible zoning for the airspace in which drones fly.  Sipus developed representations of color coded areas of Chicago, with green being flat and open public areas in which drones could fly freely, and orange, yellow and red areas delineating various restricted or prohibited spaces. The airspace over commercial stadiums, for example, may be restricted to advertising and television drones, and barred from civilian aircraft. Since his initial speculations, Sipus tells ArchDaily he has been involved in expanding the idea, including some recent work with NASA, suggesting that these ideas are ripe for real-world implementation.
If municipal governments established these zones, drones could then be programmed to respond to sensors that would either grant them full access to select areas, or alternatively automatically redirect their paths when approaching restricted areas. This digital infrastructure mapped over three-dimensional airspace would be completely invisible but play a crucial role in the deployment of infrastructure such as “highways” for delivery drones and more open recreational spaces for civilian drones.
Concerns over the use of pilotless aircraft and privacy have been another driving factor in developing legislation to regulate the use of drones through zoning and other means, following reports of paparazzi using drones to capture photos of celebrities in their private homes. Zoning may be one tool to approach these issues, but the design of homes themselves could also potentially transform to respond to increased needs for privacy from aerial viewers. This may include the design of outdoor spaces that simultaneously offer the open qualities of being outdoors, but take advantage of innovative canopy systems to provide increased privacy. Alternatively, private residences may return to Roman-styled central courtyards to improve protection from drones and perhaps create an entirely new “McMansion” typology designed around ensuring optimal privacy.
In everything from the design of skyscraper façades with integrated drone landing pods, to invisible urban infrastructure for government zoning, to the nuanced design of private residences, it is clear that the technological revolution sparked by drones will have widespread architectural ramifications. Drones could have a great many positive and negative effects on how we experience our cities, and we have yet to see the true extent of these effects in practice. In this complex multidimensional future, architects will face the challenge of working with both tech industries and government agencies more closely than ever before to develop truly pioneering urban design.
- 'Ubiquitous As Pigeons': Imagining Life in the City of Drones (Laura Bliss, CityLab)
- Drones are Ready for Takeoff: Will unmanned aerial vehicles—drones—soon take civilian passengers on pilotless flights (Richard Conniff, Smithsonian Magazine)
- Drone City: How Unmanned Drones Will Change Urbanism For the Better (Phil Pawlett Jackson, The Architectural Review)
- Zoning and Urban Land Use Planning for Drones (Mitchell Sipus, Humanitarian Space)