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06 December 2019

Getting carried away: The future of urban air mobility

There is increasing use of drones in our personal and professional lives, but how much do we understand about their potential to disrupt how we live and how quickly this is likely to happen?  With Uber rolling out its flying taxi service test flights in Melbourne, Australia from 2020 and Amazon testing aerial drone technologies for its deliveries, the prospect of quick and dramatic change is very real and may arguably be an essential part of delivering success in the United Kingdom’s post-Brexit future.  This article outlines some of the implications of these potential changes for property owners and developers, given the infrastructure that is going to be needed in order to support a drone network.  

What will drones carry and what is the likely timetable?

In a world where traffic jams and pollution are increasing, ground based infrastructure is stretched beyond capacity and is extremely expensive, sometimes impossible to improve.  It is unsurprising that companies such Uber, DHL and Amazon have investigated how they might use urban air mobility and drone technology to supplement traditional forms of transport.  In London alone, parcel deliveries increased by 65% between 2012 and 2016 and they are expected to grow by another 33% by 2021. 

Cargo drones are already operating successfully in China, Switzerland and Africa – with a particular focus on medical deliveries.  UK based drone infrastructure and operating company Skyports are conducting flight trials in the UK, Finland, Belgium and Sweden already.  If medical use leads to community confidence and acceptance, a national drone delivery network could be rolled out soon. 

This potential use of drones for cargo deliveries and the timetable involved may be unsurprising given the growth of online deliveries and might even be hastened by the continuing decline of the High Street.  However, many people are unaware that drones can now also carry passengers and that the first commercial urban flights of this type are expected to take place in 2021.  In line with this timetable, testing is currently ongoing in Singapore, the US, China and Germany.  Flights would initially be point-to-point along pre-defined routes (such as the helicopter routes already set out for London) but Skyports expects rapid scale-up from 2023 using a wider network of routes.  

How close are we to air taxis in cities? 

  • Skyports are attending the ITS World Congress in Singapore in October where they will be unveiling and exhibiting the world’s first passenger ‘Voloport’.
  • The ‘Voloport’ will be operated in conjunction with vehicle manufacturer Volocopter.  
  • Skyports and Volocopter are working with the Singapore government to launch an air taxi network by 2022. 

Why should developers and landlords consider installing a vertiport? 

It has been recognised for some time that tenant demand for improved building connectivity is only likely to increase, whether in a commercial or residential context.  For example, in “The New Real” report published by Charles Russell Speechlys in 2016, research showed that 54% of corporate occupiers agreed that pre-21st century office and retail buildings will struggle to retain their value over the next 20 years because tenants will seek out more technologically-enabled buildings.    

Whilst a number of landlords have been focused on creating “smart buildings” to cater for this demand, it may also now be wise to consider drone connectivity for the future – not least because early adoption may preclude other potential nearby sites from having similar arrangements installed.  Future-proofing new developments in this way should certainly be considered in order to try to maintain – and hopefully enhance – investment values.  

Practical arrangements on the ground 

Infrastructure is integral to the success of urban air mobility, but investment and focus in it is scarce, although this is changing.  Skyports locates, secures, designs and builds passenger and cargo “vertiports” required for urban aviation globally, obtaining the necessary approvals from local councils and the Civil Aviation Authority.  They are building the world’s first Vertiport in Singapore which will be operating in October in conjunction with the vehicle manufacturer Volocopter.     

Skyports have secured a number of sites globally with a focus on London, Singapore and North America with typical sites including large multi-let offices, top decks of car parks, transportation hubs and shopping centres.  They can also be on open land – for example within a business park or even on a floating pontoon over water. 

Legal issues for consideration 

To date, property owners using drones have tended to focus on the rules imposed by the Civil Aviation Authority surrounding drone operation and potential issues under wider laws relating to privacy, trespass etc.  The Civil Aviation Authority’s rules currently include specifications about keeping a drone within sight of the operator, limits on altitude and maintaining appropriate distances from third parties and their property.  However, these rules are under review by aviation authorities around the world. 

Landlords interested in the option of installing a vertiport on new or existing buildings should now consider a review of the relevant legal arrangements which will be required.  Leaving aside the contractual and construction arrangements which will need to be agreed with the infrastructure provider (including responsibility for planning and aviation authority issues), landlords also need to ensure that their leases are sufficiently flexible to allow the installation and operation of a vertiport from their building.  

Where a building is yet to be let, the form of lease(s) can be prepared so as to enable the landlord to make appropriate arrangements for those operating and using a vertiport to access the common parts and services.  For buildings still in the planning stages and yet to be constructed, it may be sensible to consider whether separate access to the roof can be arranged for the vertiport operations so as to minimise disruption for other tenants within the building.  Such steps should help to minimise the risk of a tenant within the building seeking to make a claim based on derogation from grant and/or breach of quiet enjoyment.  However, landlords should also consider in advance whether the operation of a drone business is likely to interfere with any tenant’s use and enjoyment of its property and whether a specific acknowledgment of the presence (or potential presence) of a vertiport is needed within the leases.  

Many of these points should also be considered by any landlord who wants to install a vertiport on an existing building, where the legal position is obviously likely to be more complex.  At the very least, there is obviously a greater potential for complaints about noise during construction and operation of the vertiport.  With a building that includes residential units, it is also possible that a proposed letting to a drone infrastructure provider could be a relevant disposal under the Landlord and Tenant Act 1987 and that notices under that Act would need to be served on the relevant qualifying tenants.  There could also be issues where there is a right to manage company appointed by residential leaseholders and landlords will need to consider their position carefully in such circumstances. 

In addition to these points, property owners are likely to be concerned about the potential for drone operations to result in injury to members of the public and/or damage to property.  The various duties of care which may be owed – including to tenants and certain third parties using their premises, as well as to neighbours – will require property owners to take reasonable care to prevent damage and injury.  To address these risks, appropriate safety assessments will need to be undertaken and property owners should also check that their insurance arrangements provide appropriate cover. 

What next? 

Whilst there are a number of legal and practical issues to consider when it comes to drone operations, the option for drone transport to become a regular part of our personal and professional lives is becoming clear.  Changes to building operations and design will need to be considered if property owners and developers are to reap the potential rewards on offer to them in the very near future. 


This article was written by Partner Emma Humphreys and Senior Associate Eddie Richards at Charles Russell Speechlys LLP and Infrastructure Manager James Bircumshaw at Skyports Limited.

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