The Future Of Urban Planning: Zoning For Drones

How we can make our lives with flying robots not suck.
Along the Chicago waterfront. Mitchell Sipus

A century ago, as cars first emerged into the world, cities and laws that were designed for horses suddenly had to adapt to a whole new presence in their space. Cities didn’t know how to handle these fast machines, and fatal accidents in the early age of cars led to legal battles between pedestrians and cars over who had the right to the road. Now, commercial drones are approaching their Model-T moment, and planners can get ahead of this by plotting out their cities in color-coded three-dimensional blocks of sky.

Urban designer Mitchell Sipus, who’s done work for the mayors of both Kabul and Mogadishu, has sketched out a rough idea of possible zoning laws for drones. Sipus draws an explicit parallel between traffic law and drone law. He tells Popular Science:

Sipus says that presently we’re risking implementing a set of drone ‘laws that crush opportunity.” For example, a law considered by Hawaii would restrict how police could use drones, and at the same time prevent anyone else from using a drone at all. That’s a shame, because then the world would lose out on great aerial photography of the islands. The answer is creating laws that allow for the good potential. “There are new markets this could create. Why are creating regulatory frameworks to hinder that? We should be creating frameworks that encourage that.”

Sipus’ system would let cities plot out volumes of space where drones are okay, places where there are restrictions, and places where they’re forbidden without special approval. For his concept, he used the familiar colors of traffic lights: “green areas are free-use, yellow and orange maintain various restrictions according to the time of day and day of week, while red areas are restricted at all times.”

Here’s what that model looks like in a slice of Chicago:

The green area covers an open space near a park and a fountain, where people are likely not too crowded together, and where there’s a body of water.

Orange and yellow spaces represent buildings where it would be okay to fly drones some of the time but not all the time. The yellow covers a large block of housing, which could restrict drones during the day but allow them above a certain altitude at night. One of the buildings in orange is an observatory, where daytime flights might be fine but nighttime droning could obstruct the telescope.

The red area in the example is Soldier Field, where the Chicago Bears play. Here, personal drones with cameras would be explicitly banned for privacy and licensing concerns, unless explicitly authorized by the stadium and the NFL.

If done responsibly, a system like this could protect the privacy and safety of the community while allowing for exciting innovation. Done poorly, it could fail to provide even one part of that. “I like laws, I like taxation, I like regulation, but I like it when it serves a purpose,” said Sipus. Zoning for drones could be a gentle way to give necessary control over just how flying robots enter the daily lives of millions of Americans.

Check out more of Sipus’s drone zone design at Humanitarian Space.