The drone superhighway needs its own art program

21.55, Monday 21 Nov 2022

Hey it’s follow-up week! I’m posting new words about old posts. Drop me a note if there’s something from the archives that you want an update on.

Re: What about a national packet-switched drone delivery network (2021).

Maybe today’s focus on local road-based delivery robots is a dead end, and the last mile logistics world should be looking at packet-switching drones instead.

Specifically I wanted a policy intervention: an interoperable protocol for packet-switched drone delivery in theory over the entire country – including how to pick up/drop off a parcel from a street, recharge the drones from standardised recharging points, and allocate billing and network fees.



The UK is set to become home to the world’s largest automated drone superhighway within the next two years.

The drones will be used on the 164-mile Skyway project connecting towns and cities, including Cambridge and Rugby.

… “Whether it be a business doing logistics, all the way to the police and medical deliveries of vaccines and blood samples, there’s a real demand to have access to this airspace,” he said.

…which seems promising, right?

There will be an automated, drone-specific air traffic control system between the cities, with route guidance and collision avoidance.

I can’t find anything else about the project online. I found a list of other recently funded drone projects and they’re all decent applications – good stuff really, drones carrying medicine or drones carrying the post. Nothing about building a scalable protocol that anyone can plug into, it’s probably too early for that. A shame though understandable.

But, and let me fantasise for a second, what I hope is embedded in these projects (somehow) is DESIGN.

In particular - in my fantasy - 10% of the budget would be carved out for speculative design in two areas.


Visualise the future. Let’s say there were drone superhighways all over the country. How would it operate at scale? How would your neighbourhood store plug into it? How would routing function? Talk to the engineers and rough it out – and then paint pictures, illustrate, make posters. Create gorgeous, accessible, rich graphics and paintings made for newspapers and made for TV. Make the vision feel real, and thereby create desire, belief, and alignment.

Bonus points: use this as commercial art for ads for the partner organisations.


A good science fiction story should be able to predict not the automobile but the traffic jam.Frederik Pohl. Use design to speculate about how people might live, with a nationwide distributed drone network. How will community change? How will kids make use of drones hovering at bedroom windows? What will go wrong or be unexpected? What secondary inventions will be required? This work gives us access to new ideas that are otherwise hard to reach… then similarly publicise these visualisations and fire the imagination.

If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.

I think we’re missing the why from technology nowadays. And the human. And the public conversation. All hidden behind the invisible hand.

And design has been dominated lately, I think, by its user-focused and aesthetic wings.

The wild and inventive and energising aspect, the exploratory and opinionated and impractical and persuasive and critical sides – I feel like this is a missing piece of R&D funding.

I made a roundup of art + tech back in 2015, and alongside that I would add the NASA Art Program (famously the still-resonant Ames Research Center space stations from the 1970s). It’s a list worth a scan!

I think that speculative design in the public eye, as something commercial and normative, is woefully underused. If for some reason I were given the keys to the UK’s government R&D budget, I’d get a 10% design, arts and comms allocation locked in, across the board, then quit the next day.

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