Blue Sky Thinking: Students Design for an Autonomous Aerial Future

May 6, 2022

A.E.R.O, Aerotropolis studio
Image Caption
A.E.R.O., a student master plan developed as part of Aerotropolis, imagines a possible future for Baltimore Avenue. Photo courtesy of James Tilghman).

Of the long list of considerations architects must weigh when designing a building, flying cars have—so far—not been one of them. Yet experts suggest that autonomous aerial vehicles (AAVs) will be less a fantasy and more a function of our day-to-day within 20 years, impacting not only how we travel, but where we live, work, learn and play.

It is a design challenge Clinical Associate Professor James Tilghman and his students took on again this semester as part of Tilghman’s popular undergraduate design studio course, Aerotropolis. Now in its fifth year, Aerotropolis is transit-oriented development on steroids, where skyward hubs of commercial, institutional, cultural and residential activity leverage the autonomous and aerial mobility of the near future.

“Drone technology is already here in its infancy,” says Tilghman. “Could we see the first intimations of human aerial transport in the next decade? Absolutely. The implications on how we connect and travel will directly inform urban spaces and architectural design. Our mission as architects is to bring the beauty of this technology out front and center by imagining a meaningful trajectory for this technology in the built environment.”

Situated on two sites in College Park—the corner of Campus Drive and Baltimore Avenue and a wide field at the College Park Airport—student teams were asked to conceptualize multi-functional “vertical” communities that integrate UMD’s Tier-One research reputation, its agricultural roots and a diverse, rapidly-growing College Park community for the year 2040. Master plan concepts and programming were based on a theoretical foundation informed by student research on vertical communities, smart technology, mobility, VR technology and immersive environments and smart cities; design ideas were informed by everything from block chain and urban farming to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and the future of human health.

“It’s ambitious; you’re doing a lot of thinking about programming and experience and how that contributes to community,” said Tilghman.

The Aerotropolis concept isn’t new. It was originally coined in Popular Science in the 1930s and later, repurposed by air commerce researcher John Kasarda as metropolitan activity centered closely around an airport. Tilghman’s concept offers a revolutionary spin, designed to get students thinking, not just about the future of mobility, but also to offer a glimpse into the future of urban settlements. Previous years have attracted the input of Scott Plank (B.A. Urban Studies ’88) and Margrave Strategies President Ken Ullman; a concept from the 2021 studio earned one student an AIA Maryland design award.

Four master plans presented by student teams last month offered different, connected futures where man and machine intermingle in virtually every facet of daily life. Debunked is the idea that buildings must be entered at the base; the student designs offered multiple entry levels and both horizontal and vertical circulation. Drone technology, students found, reduces burdens on a small scale to help the building function, easing the transportation of materials across the site and eliminating the need for service corridors.

One master plan, called the Array, is an eclectic Lego-like arrangement of stacked spaces with a wedge of open circulation that runs the length of the building, offering inhabitants a full vista of the building’s activity while creating space for aerial movement. Another concept, A.E.R.O., offers an elevated building that showcases the full spectrum of food production, from research and growing to making and consumption; playing off the vein system of a plant, the students employed an internal circulation system called a “rachis” for both drones and people with multiple entry points.

“This studio has really helped me think more conceptually,” said Kyle Verycken (B.S. Architecture ’22). “All the studios I’ve taken before had a set program where we realistically know what would go inside, where this studio was a clean slate. In a lot of ways, it offered complete freedom and allowed us to be really innovative, but it was a total mind shift.”

Still, planning for something that doesn’t yet exist poses its challenges. Students had to rethink their buildings’ scale, how they are massed, entrance sizes and placement, and how both people and vehicles navigate the space. Other considerations—like drone noise, air pressure and updraft from takeoff and landing—reiterate how much is still unknown.

“I was pushed completely out of my comfort zone,” said Alex Curry (B.ARCH ’22). “The exercise of having to anticipate something that I don’t think anyone can fully grasp and the scope of where we’ll be in 20 years has really changed how I think. It’s turned my perspective of architecture completely on its head.”

Aerial skyways are more than likely the future of mobility, said Matt Scassero, director of UMD’s UAS Test Site, who was part of the studio’s master plan jury. While likely still decades away, considering the design implications now is critical for keeping pace with emerging technology.

“No one ever starts an innovation with a clean sheet of paper; it’s an evolutionary process,” he said. “We started from Orville and Wilbur and we’re still building on that.”

One of a handful of elective studios offered specifically to upperclassman, Tilghman reiterates that Aerotropolis is as much about learning to develop and articulate a concept as it is honing design chops.

“A lot of this course was learning how to tell a story and do that well, to get people on board with our ideas,” said Tim Krouse (B.ARCH ’22). “But a huge piece for me was also learning how to design as part of a group; figuring out when to speak up in our design huddles and when to take a step back.”

While city skylines dotted with buzzing AAVs are still a blur on the horizon, conceiving what the world will look like on the ground is a worthy exercise, said Ryan Yetter (B.ARCH ’22), for one important reason: career timing.  

This is the sort of world that will arrive as our professional careers are in full swing,” he said. “We’re not planning fairytale castles and wizard towers in this studio; this is definitively in our future, and something that we’ll all have to deal with in some capacity or another.”

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