Drone Airports Don't Make Long-Term Sense But We're Building Them Anyway

Just because centralizing mission control makes for easier training doesn't mean it's helpful over the long term.


The Aerodrome, a fully operational drone airport in Nevada, bills itself as the first hub on the globe where unmanned aerial systems take precedence over aircraft with people in them. As drone training grounds go, the Boulder City facility is brilliant; as a commercial port for drone traffic, it’s largely useless.

First, the nice stuff: As drones become a ubiquitous $2.07-billion industry over the next six years — this is what the people behind Aerodrome not unreasonably predict — lots of people will have to learn to fly. If you need space to use flying technology you don’t own or can’t use at home, droneports fit the bill. The Aerodrome has, smartly, positioned itself as a training facility. It is like the net cafe of yore, which was a place to get on the World Wide Web when people called it that and didn’t have computers at home. It’s a place to get airborne.

If the Aerodome falls short of commercial success, however, it will depend on how closely it hews to self-made comparisons with teaching hospitals. At teaching hospitals, of course, patients still have issues that need to be solved. A central UAV landing hub is a solution looking for a problem most drone operators won’t have. If you buy that drones have revolutionary potential, that potential stems from their ease-of-flight and supreme aerial agility. Airports became a thing because jets need runways. Quadcopters, and even small fixed-wing drones, can be launched by hand. Here, the Aerodrome is an internet cafe in an age of smartphones.

Whatever the future drone venture might be (inspecting construction sites, say, or mapping fertilizer use on farms), many make sense as data-gathering near specific locales. Or it’s transporting defibrillators, as SkyOp drone educator Brian Pitre recently told Inverse, and other sorts of point A-to-B cargo hauling.

Cargo droneports have humanitarian potential in places like Rwanda, where drones can overcome transportation obstacles to deliver medical supplies. But delivery drones in the United States, as touted by Amazon and Google Wing, want to get away from the cluster. They’re gunning for your doorstep. There are plenty of hurdles in the way — collision avoidance; the fact that the Federal Aviation Administration, historically, has not allowed aerial vehicles to fly beyond an operator’s line of sight; whether or not consumers even want drones hovering over their stoops — but the lack of a JFK of drones isn’t one.