How can drones be used in smart cities?


Smart cities promise an exciting future. The urban sprawls of tomorrow will feature a huge array of technology to make everyday life easier, safer, and cleaner. The Internet of Things (IoT) tends to take much of the spotlight in this area, but drones are also a vital piece of the puzzle.

Drones can carry cameras and sensors into the air to bring smart city connectivity to new heights — in some cases, literally. Here are ten ways they can make smart cities smarter.

1. Smart City Planning

Drones’ role in smart cities starts before local governments install IoT devices. Developing the urban centers of tomorrow begins with finding where connected technologies are most useful. Drones can help by providing faster, more accurate surveys of the area.

A real-world drone survey in Doha before the 2022 World Cup took just 20 minutes, while traditional methods took three hours. An aerial view can also provide a unique perspective to more accurately highlight areas like high-traffic zones or potential spots for rooftop gardens. These quick, informed analyses make planning future smart cities easier.

2. Urban Construction

After city officials plan new projects, they can use drones in construction. Building new infrastructure in a busy city can be noisy, time-consuming, and dangerous, but drones can help.

First, these remote-controlled vehicles can survey sites for hazards to inform safer working policies in less time. Then, teams can use them to monitor workers in real-time to ensure they’re safe, alerting them of any risks that arise during the project. Similarly, drones can watch for nearby pedestrians to warn them or alert equipment operators to prevent dangerous run-ins.

3. Emergency Medical Responses

Drones improve safety outside of construction, too. Emergency responses can be slow in dense urban areas — in New York City, it takes ambulances an average of 9 ½ minutes to respond. Drones could cut those response times down to save lives.

Sensors and cameras throughout the city could detect emergencies as they happen and immediately dispatch drones in response. Because these aerial vehicles don’t have to deal with traffic, they can arrive at the scene quickly. Emergency responders could use them to deliver first-aid kits or other critical resources, direct nearby professionals, or talk citizens through steps to minimize their injuries.

4. Policing and Public Safety

Similarly, police departments could use smart city drones to fight crime or respond to emergencies. Machine vision technology could let automated drones recognize breaking, robberies, or assaults and immediately alert nearby officers. The police could then respond faster to protect civilians and catch criminals.

The mere presence of police drones may boost public safety, too. Seeing camera-equipped drones fly around could make people feel less confident about getting away with something illegal. That way, they’d prevent crime before it happens, just as stationary security cameras deter thieves.

5. Last-Mile Deliveries

On a less severe note, drones could also make smart cities more efficient by handling deliveries. Companies like Amazon have already been pushing for last-mile drone deliveries. These would be easier in smart cities, where networks of sensors and information can guide them to the right place safely and quickly.

Using drones for deliveries is more than just a matter of convenience — it’d reduce the number of vehicles on the road to ease traffic jams. It’s also a big win for people with disabilities that = make leaving the house to get groceries or medicine difficult.

6. Traffic Monitoring

Traffic management as a whole is a big issue for smart cities. Honolulu, Hawaii, has invested $6 million in IoT tech to monitor traffic and alert people of jams and alternate routes. Drones can take these initiatives further.

Camera-equipped drones can detect accidents or congestion in real-time and send this information to other smart city sensors to reroute traffic. Drones’ birds-eye views would enable in-depth traffic management to balance congestion between streets and help people reach their destinations faster and more safely.

7. Infrastructure Inspections

Drones’ monitoring abilities also make them ideal tools for managing city infrastructure. Many large urban areas have aging roads, bridges, and other public structures, which can be dangerous. However, inspecting them manually is time-consuming and disruptive.

Using drones lets city officials check various structures’ conditions without needing to be there physically. Because drone sensors provide accurate length and area measurements, they can reveal detailed information about potential issues. Local governments can then find and fix problems faster and more accurately.

8. Waste Management

Better waste management is a less glamorous but important function of smart cities. Big cities produce a lot of waste — if officials don’t handle it properly, it can lead to excessive pollution, unpleasant smells, and inefficient processes. Drones’ unique perspectives and monitoring abilities help them tackle this issue effectively.

Drones can watch cities from the air to identify where waste piles up most. Combining this data with traffic insights can help officials plan more efficient collection routes and distribute their resources more efficiently. Similarly, drones can inform these teams of different landfill conditions so that trash can be spread evenly between them.

9. Sustainability

Drones may also play a central role in making smart cities more environmentally friendly. Part of this stems from drones reducing traffic, which results in fewer vehicle emissions. But their sustainability benefits go further than that.

Just as cities use drones for urban expansion, they can use them to find ideal areas for parks or highlight environmentally sensitive areas to leave alone. Urban expansion has accounted for 50% of biodiversity loss, so these improvements are key to minimizing such damage in the future. Similarly, drones could monitor pollution and related trends to highlight areas to improve to reduce cities’ ecological impact.

10. Informing Public Policy

Across all these other use cases, drones gather a lot of data. This information on traffic patterns, waste, crime, emergency responses, and more reveals larger trends that affect public policy. Having specific, relevant information makes making big decisions much easier.

City officials can then write new policies or adjust existing ones to help the area run more efficiently, safely, or sustainably. Drones can continue to provide data to measure this legislation’s effectiveness after the fact.

Possible Concerns With Drones in Smart Cities

Despite these huge advantages, no technology is perfect. Using drones in smart city planning and operations also introduces a few issues that city officials should be aware of.

The biggest problems are surveillance and ethics. Cameras constantly flying overhead may make people feel like they don’t have much privacy. Putting drones on police rolls is particularly controversial in that respect. Roughly seven in 10 U.S. adults are already concerned about how the government collects and uses data about them, and drones could worsen this issue.

Similarly, all this data collection introduces cybersecurity risks. Cybercriminals could cause massive damage or breach many citizens’ privacy if they get access to drone data. Smart city technology must come with extensive cybersecurity measures to prevent these attacks.

There are technical problems to grapple with, too. Airspace regulations make in-city drone flying tricky, and environmental factors like wind and rain can limit drone flights in some conditions. Ensuring drones can work safely and not fall on unsuspecting passers-by may be harder considering these hazards, technical glitches, and limited battery lives.

Drones Could Be Crucial in Smart City Development

As smart city technology advances, officials will find solutions to many of these problems. Further discussion about data privacy and ethics will also help inform fairer smart city policies. When that happens, drones will be able to reach their full potential.

These ten use cases show how drones could be essential to the cities of tomorrow. Integrating mobile technologies with innovations like AI and IoT could make urban living safer, healthier, and more convenient.