Will Londoners Commute By Drone? It's Not A New Idea

By M@ Last edited 10 months ago
Will Londoners Commute By Drone? It's Not A New Idea
Image: Skyports

'Landing and recharging pads for drones will become ubiquitous atop urban buildings within a few years,' reports the ever-excellent Dezeen. The item profiles the Skyports company, which is bullishly buying up space on London's rooftops. The firm — not to be confused with SkySports — foresees a time, very soon, when drones might carry packages and passengers point-to-point through the capital's skies. Companies such as Amazon and Uber are also investing in the aerial city.

It might well come to pass. Then again, it might not. London has seen this particular species of future-gazing before. In the mid-20th century, helipads were seen as the future of urban transport, and ambitious schemes were abundant.

Here we present a chronology, which includes pie-in-the-sky dreams, and the handful of heliports that came to fruition.

A vision for Liverpool Street (1944)

The earliest calls for London heliports came while the second world war was still raging. Helicopters proved their worth in the conflict, and attention turned to their possible civilian uses. This scheme, uncovered by our friend Tim Dunn in the book London As it Might Have Been, was proposed for Liverpool Street station.

London's first rooftop landing (1949)

Images copyright CapCo, used with permission.

The age of mass aerial transport was heralded on 15 July 1948. This is thought to be the first ever rooftop landing of a helicopter in London, on top of a car park near Olympia. The Sikorsky helicopter was supposed to usher in a brave new world in which Londoners would park their cars belowdecks, then head upstairs to a rooftop heliport for local or international travel.

Charing Cross Heliport (1951)

Charing Cross station as we know it might never have happened. Had these plans by architects Aslan and Freeman taken shape, we'd have all been catching 'copters from a platform shaped like the Millennium Falcon (or perhaps the inside of a CD player).

Waterloo Air Terminal (1955)

London briefly had a public heliport on the South Bank. The cleared site of the 1951 Festival of Britain was turned into a helipad supporting flights out to Heathrow. It lasted just 10 months and carried fewer than 4,000 passengers. Here's a video. An unrealised plan from around the same time would have seen a heliport built on top of Waterloo station.

Skyport One (1957)

Like some kind of daft trombone, this needlessly lofty heliport was envisioned for St George's Circus, near Waterloo. Its three generous, hexagonal helipads, at similar height to the top of the Gherkin, would have made quite a landmark in this otherwise low-rise neighbourhood.  An estimated 7,000-10,000 people would have used the pads each day. The complex was designed by James Dartford for Pilkington’s Glass Age Development Committee. Never a serious planning proposal, it was intended as a vision of city living in the year 2000.

1959: London Heliport opens

Image: Illustrated London News, 23 July 1960. (c) Illustrated London News Group. Found in the British Newspaper Archive.

Inner London's only successful passenger heliport opened on Battersea riverside in 1959 (note, that's Lots Road power station, Fulham in the image, not Battersea Power Station). The pad is still operating today — one of just two in the central area (the other is on the Isle of Dogs). Anyone can book a flight onto a commercial sight-seeing tour of the capital.

1961: A heliport at King's Cross?

With Battersea's heliport operating successfully, planners and entrepreneurs were looking for additional sites around the capital. A government report in 1961 recommended that any pad should 'not be much more than a quarter of an hour from Grosvenor Sq'. Suggestions were put forward for Nine Elms, Cannon Street and St Katharine Docks. One scheme by Charles Glover would have seen the relocation of Covent Garden Market to the sidings north of King's Cross. The new buildings would have featured a rooftop heliport, as shown in the video above. King's Cross was also the location of an earlier, utterly bonkers proposal for a circular airport for fixed-wing aircraft.

1978: A rejected proposal for Hammersmith

The idea of public helipads never quite went away. This scheme from the late 1970s was drawn up by Norman Foster. It would have entailed the complete demolition of Hammersmith Broadway, to be replaced with this gigantic office block and transport interchange. The bonus helipad is seemingly supported by magic. Unsurprisingly, it was rejected.

Rooftop helipads proved unattractive for a variety of reasons. The demand was never there, and the technology could be unreliable. A fatal accident in New York in 1977 brought home the dangers of this mode of travel. There have been successes, too. London's Air Ambulance in Whitechapel has operated for 30 years, saving countless lives, but it is an exception.

Perhaps the time is now ripe to revisit the idea of rooftop pads, using cheaper, safer drone technology. Skyports will have to overcome many challenges — regulatory, economic and practical — before Jetsons-like transport takes off in any big way.

Last Updated 03 September 2018