2015 Sparking Innovation

Exploring the design implications of new technology

Architecture student imagines a St. Louis drone facility


Amazon.com is testing drones — a fact that has inspired both media gushing and late-night amusement.

But for Rolando Lopez, who is earning a master of architecture degree from the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts, the interesting question is not what but how.

Rolando Lopez

In “Fly the Mall,” Rolando Lopez explores how drone delivery might be implemented in the St. Louis region.

“Drones have flight limitations,” said Lopez, who was born in Cuba but spent his teen years in Florida. “They can only go about five miles from a station. This implies that they would need several stations throughout a metropolitan area.”

Rolando Lopez

A distribution center located near the intersection of I-40/64 and Grand Boulevard would allow drones to reach most of the city core. Covering the entire metropolitan region would require seven such centers.

In other words, today’s mega-warehouses, typically built on the metropolitan periphery, could one day evolve into networks of smaller-scaled facilities situated within dense urban contexts.

In “Fly the Mall,” his master’s thesis project, Lopez offers a fascinating vision of how such facilities might operate. For example, flute-like structures, situated on the roof, could allow drones to directly access sorting room conveyor belts.

“As architects, we’re trained to design for people,” said Lopez, who recently won the Sam Fox School’s 2015 Frederick Widmann Prize in Architecture. “This is a very different building type with a whole new set of implications. How do drones arrive and depart? What are the flight patterns? How are they recharged?”

At the same time, “these stations will be part of a city,” Lopez continued. “And any time you build in a city, you have a responsibility to think about context. How does this building fit in? How do people experience it? What do they see as they’re driving by?

“These questions should be thought about, and thought about well.”

Rolando Lopez

Lopez’s prototype design features large flute-like openings that would allow drones to enter and depart through the roof.

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