03 Dec 2018

From 2D to 3D: the way forward for cities under pressure

A city’s lower airspace is a regulatory greenfield waiting to be conquered by autonomous services, to the benefit of its residents.

Hong Kong

What might tomorrow’s cities look like? To make predictions of the future is to move on treacherous terrain. That’s OK, let’s be bold.

It’s an audacious claim, but if you drop the dystopia they feature for dramatic effect, science-fiction movies are likely to give us a good idea of what lies in store for our cities. Why? They typically recognize two long-term trends that began decades ago.

For one, the relentless growth of the urban population, as people gravitate towards cities in search of a better life. By 2050, two people out of three are projected to live in space-constrained urban areas.

Second, the ongoing digital revolution. Wireless communication and positioning technologies that enable the Internet of Things (IoT) are moving out of our cars and pockets into virtually every facet of our lives and every aspect of our environment.

By optimizing the flows of people, goods, and energy, and enabling intelligent infrastructure and smart services and utilities, digital technologies hold the promise to make the cities we live in better serve our needs, increasing our overall comfort and wellbeing.

Doing so will involve transposing many of our utilities and services to, literally, new heights. As humans, we suffer from an inherent 2D bias: despite a few notable exceptions, such as helicopters and airplanes, we tend to solve problems using ground-based solutions. But cities around the world are already hitting the bandwidth limits imposed by their 2D design. It only makes sense, then, for us to explore the third dimension, in particular the lower airspace above our cities, from the ground up to 300 meters altitude.

Imagine swarms of aerial service drones flying from building to building, autonomously cleaning skyscrapers. Or autonomous taxi drones flying customers from place to place, escaping traffic by traveling as the crow flies. Autonomous emergency and rescue services could be on site in a fraction of the time required today.

What makes the prospect of taking to the sky more alluring still is that the lower airspace these applications occupy is, as of yet, largely unregulated. This presents a unique opportunity to start from scratch, defining the legal rules the UAVs would adhere to in order to increase safety and enhance security. These rules could then be updated to reflect new learnings, accommodate new use cases, and further tighten security.

As an industry leader, the role of u-blox is to continually peer into the future to develop communication and positioning technologies that will pave the way for new, disruptive technological innovations. In addition to their core functionalities, communication and positioning, reliability, scalability, and security are all important keywords. Integrity is another, even more so in applications that are not under human control. The software controlling aerial taxis, for example, needs to know how much trust it can place in the position reading delivered by the satellite receiver.

We are convinced that the Internet of Things will change every aspect of our societies, our businesses, and our everyday lives. Our cities will be transformed – for the better – by adopting innovative solutions that let us make better use of shared resources.

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