Incorporating Drones Into Planning Practice

As technology continues to advance, drones and other autonomous aircraft present opportunities and challenges for planners.

While aerospace development has primarily occurred at national, global, and orbital flight scales, the last decade has brought renewed interest in localized forms of aerial mobility. The aerospace industry is now developing autonomous drone technologies that are relevant to current transportation trends such as mobility-as-a-service providers, e-commerce, and smart city data.

These new autonomous aerial vehicles have been pitched as a means to:

  • transform local passenger mobility (via air taxi shuttles)
  • enhance freight delivery and distribution (via small and large cargo drones)
  • enable aerial data collection (via small drones functioning as sensing platforms)

Planning For and Planning With UAS

City and regional planners are uniquely trained to consider the broader impacts on society at local scales of operation — and these planning perspectives must be integrated into conversations about the implementation of unmanned (or uncrewed) aerial systems (UAS). Yet, planners are not typically engaged in aviation planning or airspace operations — so where can they begin?

Planning organizations can first take steps toward distinguishing two visions: to plan for UAS versus plan with UAS.

Planning represents the viewpoint of designing and implementing policies, programs, and projects that either enable or restrict the broader community from using UAS. In other words, planning agencies and local governments will need to work with their stakeholders to think about the extent to which their community wants to create incentives for UAS or discourage it.

Local planners who are new to airspace operations may be surprised to learn how limited their powers are in regulating aerial forms of transportation — including small (less than 55 pounds) drones.

The planning with viewpoint emphasizes the role of small UAS in supporting the planning activities and responsibilities of state and local planning departments. This means reevaluating planning processes to decide if and when small UAS technologies can enhance the quality of or reduce the cost of planning products.

Small drones are becoming quieter, cheaper, and more durable. Similarly, the affiliated sensors, software, and data analysis tools are increasingly accessible to many planning departments. 

To plan for or with drones, planners must be initiated into the legal structures of airspace regulation and the legal conflicts that may occur at low-altitude operations near population centers. This will enable planners to think creatively within their jurisdictional powers and communicate accurately with the broader community should commercial UAS gain traction in their region.

Planning With UAS to Serve Communities

Planning with UAS presents an opportunity to serve our communities from a different vantage point. Similar to any other data collection effort, the questions we ask are arguably more important than the data we collect or the specific technology we use.

To that extent, planning with UAS provides an opportunity for planners to ask questions that were previously considered too expensive or labor-intensive to answer:

What can we observe from high-resolution imagery to document inequities in the quality and safety of our streetscapes? What light detection and ranging (Lidar) data can we collect to manage vegetation in our parks, urban forests, and public greenspace? What can we detect from multispectral and hyperspectral sensors to measure water quality?

New strategies on how to plan with UAS will continue to emerge as planners continue to collaborate and experiment. Now is the time to brainstorm whether small UAS can supplement your existing data collection efforts and help your planning agency answer important questions about your community.

Top image: Drone flight in Chicago. Photo by Petra Hurtado.

Headshot of Amber Woodburn McNair.
About the Author
Amber Woodburn McNair is an assistant professor of city and regional planning at the Knowlton School at the Ohio State University. She also holds an affiliated position with the Center for Aviation Studies.

November 16, 2020

By Amber Woodburn McNair