How drones will change our cities

Window-washing, spray-painting and site-surveying drones are already here, but the property industry is yet to uncover the real opportunities as drones reshape our cities.

“Drones are rapidly becoming part of our cities’ ecosystems,” says global drones expert Dr Catherine Ball.

The convenor of the World of Drones Congress, which is landing in Brisbane on 8 August, Ball says Australia has the potential to become a world leader in drone application.

Unmanned aerial vehicles are already being used to aid agriculture, mining, surveillance and surf rescue. Drones monitor the Great Barrier Reef for crown-of-thorns starfish, scan our seas for smugglers, help farmers make data-driven decisions and undertake safety inspections on construction sites.

And that’s just the beginning.


Pilotless planes create new prime real estate

Ball points to EHANG’s trial of the world’s first drone taxi in Dubai last year, and Uber’s headline-grabbing ambitions for air taxis in Australia. Local trials are expected to take off by 2023, but Uber Elevate will launch its first flying cars in Dubai and Dallas as early as 2020.

“Imagine the Brisbane to Gold Coast commute. Sick of queueing on the motorway? Fly instead,” Ball says.

Airbus and Audi are working on a hybrid passenger drone and electric car, while Toyota and Intel have invested US$100 million in a start-up building an all-electric flying taxi capable of vertical take-off. “Car companies have recognised they need to be drone companies,” Ball adds.

All this drone activity presents “massive opportunities for building landlords”, as safe operation of drones demands stable “command and control links”.

“I expect to see building owners supporting the command and control of autonomous drone vehicles, and connecting through Telstra’s 5G network,” she says.

Ball says drone technology will drive competition for roof space. While rooftops today are covered in air-conditioning units, or to a lesser extent solar farms or green roofs, drones present a whole new opportunity for the property industry.

“Rooftops are no longer dead space but prime real estate.

“Any new development without a drone landing pad is a missed opportunity. Building owners need to be future-proofing. Do they have a goods lift to the roof, for example? It’s easy to be captured by the shiny and new, but we need joined up thinking about the whole system.”

Expect this to happen within a few short years, Ball adds.


Drones as data collectors

Adam Beck, executive director of the Smart Cities Council Australia New Zealand, reinforces Ball’s optimism, but emphasises the “challenges of disrupting a traditionally analog sector”.

“All the current applications are awesome, but we are only seeing one-off pilots in Australia. We are a long way from many of these drone applications becoming mainstream,” he says.

What is holding us back? Beck says the biggest barriers are the usual ones: policies, regulation and standards. Property and local government leaders tend to be risk averse, too.

“But there are some really good ‘on-ramps’ to more prolific drone application,” Beck says. The most obvious of these is building inspections.

The Queensland Government’s drone strategy, which Ball calls the “first of its kind in the world” outlines a commitment to use drones to conduct government-owned asset inspections.

“It’s cheaper, safer, more efficient and accurate to send up a drone rather than a crew. But capturing images is just the starting point,” Beck explains.

A drone is a “data collector like no other”, Beck says, comparing the possibility to the App Store, which launched with 500 apps and now has 3.8 million. Expect drone ‘apps’ of the future to encompass everything from 3D modelling and site surveys to instant brochureware.

“A drone’s camera can capture the condition of a building. We can then plug that video into artificial intelligence to run through analytics and algorithms. Machine learning can build up patterns of recognition, which means the drone can automatically identify issues and opportunities,” Beck explains.

“Imagine what this application will mean for entire precincts, neighbourhoods or cities? What starts as a simple technology enabler becomes one of the most powerful tools for any head of planning, infrastructure or development.”

Beck says the property industry has evidence that innovation pays off, and points to sustainability as an example. “But that was a 15-year journey. How do we compress that journey? We start with the low hanging fruit.”

“We are just seeing a fraction of what’s possible, and it will only get better”.

Registrations to the World of Drones Congress are online.