I’ve been thinking a bit about all the ramifications of the recent revelations that Amazon and UPS are talking about “smart” drone package delivery to a consumer’s doorstep. Presumably, autonomous unmanned aircraft are not far behind. I love technology. Still, in thinking about these aircraft in densely urbanized locations, my head starts to spin. UAVs in civilian applications are actually a few years old; for instance, there’s an article in Smithsonian’s airspacemag.com from July, 2009, called “Unmanned Traffic Jam” by Douglas Gantenbein; among other things, it refers to the utility of drones for express deliveries. July, 2009 – nearly 4 and 1/2 years ago. Here’s a few notions that impact land use controls and local governments where their downtowns are concerned–in no particular order of importance, perhaps:

A. Federalism: who ought to control the use and pathways of these drones? Does it make any difference in answering the question how dense the population is on the ground beneath the air space to be traveled by drones?

B. Speaking of air space, what about unused development rights over fee land? Is the FAA going to require easements for avigation? Who will pay for those, if so? Is such regulation, whether federal or state, going to constitute a regulatory taking?

C. Suppose the decision is made to route drones above the busy streets or other city rights of way. Who’s issue is it to resolve conflicts with utility lines, transit overhead lines – and what about issues of pedestrian and vehicular safety? Is it really likely there never will be a failure of power followed by plummeting into the right of way? Who are the liable parties, in that case? Is this analogous to bad roadway design or the failure to post warning signs in the personal injury context?

D. What about the impact of the decision where to allow drone “air space” on future development of aerial human transport systems? If Elon Musk’s “loop” or “tube transport” human movement system is only 25 years away, are drones going to compete, or impede, the development of above-ground transportation? Who gets to referee that conflict?

E. Transportation has been a general/comprehensive planning element in cities for about as long as those plans have existed. Shouldn’t “freight” transportation within a city’s limits include aerial transportation? Will that prerogative be preempted at the federal or state levels?

F. What will be the role of HOAs in this realm? Will communities be able to ban or control the hours of operations of such systems? Should they be allowed to exercise private contract powers? Or, will these organizations be preempted by governments, as in the circumstances of satellite dishes or cell towers?

G. What are the multi-purposing angles of this conversation? Drones will be plenty expensive, and there will be opportunities to make them do more than one job. Should drones be equipped with cameras to aid in traffic movement studies (vehicular counts, for instance)? What about aiding in “congestion pricing” studies and enforcement? Should they track the movement of your vehicle into and away from the city center, to be sure that you’re properly accounting for your usage? Who should have access to that information, and for what additional purposes?

Perhaps this sounds like the stuff of science fiction; but now that the FAA has chosen 6 sites including some in slightly dense but not highly urbanized areas, there seems to be some momentum directed toward allowing these UAVs. The FAA could use some food for thought from the land use planning and law communities, I think. Biologically speaking, except during the brief queen-mating season, drones in the hive are a nuisance and sometimes even a menace to the survival of the hive.