Photograph: Bradley L Garrett, The Guardian

“You own what?”

 “The air, mate. We own the air.”

Who owns the air above our cities? The public and the media are in danger of losing access to a valuable common resource, with corporations given priority

Urban airspace is being radically reshaped by the proliferation of drones – a process which is quickly slicing the air into private strips. Urban citizens are at risk of losing access to a valuable public resource as corporations are given prioritisation in the skies above our heads.

British cities are a leading testbed for professional drone delivery services. Until recently, UK “drone code” was simple – pilots had to see their drone, keep their aircraft 50 metres away from people and property, and stay clear of airports. Most pilots heed the code and breaches are few and far between.

However, these rules are being bent to allow Amazon, as part of their launch of PrimeAir, to engage in extended semi-autonomous flights where the pilot cannot see the drone. A 2015 email chain between Amazon and CAA employees, released through a Freedom of Information Act request, reveals a cosy relationship between the two.

More recently, it was announced that drones will be allowed to make deliveries to residents of Spire London, an £800m Chinese-owned skyscraper currently under construction near Canary Wharf. This would require an exemption to the CAA rules about flying in congested areas. Just as skyscrapers have become a visible marker of social inequality in the UK, the ability to fly will also be granted according to privilege, further solidifying the relationship between height and power in the capital.

Is it in the public interest to create exclusive air lanes for Amazon but deny them to photographers recording events, hospitals delivering blood, researchers collecting data or activists making their voices heard?

Leigh Raymond, professor of political science at Purdue University, Indiana, advances the wonky but useful concept of an “atmospheric commons” to describe our shared rights to the air. Perhaps it is time to imagine the atmospheric commons as a space for public rambling and exploration with drones, balloons, satellites and as-yet-unforeseen flying objects.

Geographer Jeremy Crampton suggests that not doing so could lead to dire consequences: “It has been long established that the sky is public – otherwise each airplane would have to get permission to fly over your property. This is akin to the concept of international waters on the ocean. But as with international waters, this public space is becoming increasingly and deliberately enclosed, in what might constitute a modern ‘enclosure of the commons’.”

Commons, whether on the ground or in the air, will continue to be contested, since they are, by their very nature, shared. If you look up, in any city in the world, what you see is a common: a space where our work lives and personal lives can and should intermingle.

Flying around cities, as we found when ascending over the South Bank Tower, reveals a system of invisible power – including regulations and geofences – that are governing our aerial endeavours. What comes into focus is the vertical enclosure of commons; an air grab rather than a land grab.

Thus it is all the more vital that we become pilots and take to the skies before they become parcelled into another domain for the rich and the powerful.

Becoming urban pilots is not about novelty or showmanship, it’s about exercising our rights.

This research was funded by the Centre For Mobilities Research (Cemore) at Lancaster University, where Dr Bradley L Garrett was a visiting research fellow and Dr Adam Fish is an associate and senior lecturer in the sociology department.

A very thoughtful discussion. Of course in the US the FAA claims that there is no common air – it is all theirs to regulate. But is it really? No, probably not.
Still, if you follow the authors logic, you could make the argument that every waiver (or at least some) are a diminishment of our rights to the commonly held air.
The biggest concerns are when the FAA restricts the use of our common air. The authors cite the recent TFR over Standing Rock and Ferguson noting that in the
latter case:

Audio transcripts obtained by the Associated Press made it clear the TFR had been set up specifically to prevent “media” from flying over places where police were clashing with citizens. Legal experts say these restrictions were a blatant violation of the First Amendment of the US Constitution, protecting freedom of the press.

No doubt a FOIA will reveal a similar story about the sheriff using the FAA to conceal his activities at Standing Rock.



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