FIVE MINUTES WITH: Nishita Dewan, Nesta’s lead on the Flying High Challenge

Nishita Dewan

Three months on from from the launch of Nesta’s Flying High Challenge and the industry is eagerly awaiting the results from the five chosen regions.

The Flying High Challenge, funded by the Government and run by Nesta in partnership with Innovate UK, is designed to maximise the economic and social benefits of UAVs in UK cities.

By collaborating with five selected cities, the Flying High Challenge will support each one to develop plans based on local community needs.

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While the programme is still in its first phase, Commercial Drone Professional met with the project’s lead at Nesta, Nishita Dewan, who lifted the lid on the Flying High Challenge’s launch, its development and plans for the future.

How were the five cities/ regions selected to take part?

We put together an independent judging panel because we wanted to make sure that the judging process was not part of Nesta. In that judging panel we had a mix of industry experts, like technical experts, city thought leaders, Innovate UK, who is actually our funder, Department for Transport, so we made sure we had a well-rounded judging panel.

We had over a third of UK cities apply and asked the judges to, amongst themselves, select who they felt had the five strongest applications, taking into account the mix of cities because we didn’t want to have just the large metro areas.

They went through a process of shortlisting. We had over 20 apply so they narrowed it down to ten and then from those ten narrowing it down to five, taking into account, not just the strongest but the right mix.

In terms of what they were assessed on, there were three things. Firstly vision, how well thought out was the city’s vision in relation to drones? Why were they interested in using drones in there cities? To solve what kind of city problems? To what extent had they anticipated challenges in doing this? So what were the challenges that they had foreseen?

The second was stakeholder engagement. We asked the cities to actually apply as a consortium; while there was a lead applicant we said that with drones you need a set of partners to help you, so they were also assessed on their stakeholder engagement efforts.

Thirdly their level of commitment in terms of capacity in kind contributions in terms of time, man power and resources to dedicate to fulfilling the needs of the projects.

Whilst we are working closely with those five finalists, we are also inviting the others who didn’t get selected to our launch event for our findings report and we’re sharing the newsletter and learnings with them.

What was it about drones that caught Nesta’s attention?

Drone technology isn’t new – we’re already seeing real-world examples of drone technology being used around the world in different use case, from humanitarian aid response efforts to monitoring agriculture. The technology is already there; the most advance applications of the technology have been in the military but we’re already seeing these real-world urban and rural examples being used.

By taking this ‘city’s first’ approach you’re putting people at the heart of technology which is quite unusual because normally it’s actually the technology; tech companies are leap frogging the city and leap frogging the regulator and getting there first, but we believe there is an opportunity to give the cities a great voice.

Drones are not the solution to all of your problems, that’s not what we’re saying, we’re saying lets work with you to identify what are the challenges your city is identifying. In some cases it’s a lot of traffic, so could drones be used to survey the congestion or for post-accident monitoring.

David Parry/PA Wire

How far ahead is the project planned for?

We’re currently at a stage where we have selected the five partner cities and we have been working with them to help them develop their city drone visions. How do they envisage this technology operating within the industries while also making sure that it aligns with the current smart city plans that they have?

We’re asking each of the cities to come to us and say which are the three most critical use cases that they think drones could solve and then we’ll work with them to actually just narrow it down to one, but we want to make sure we don’t have duplicating use cases. So we don’t want both London and Bradford to look at monitoring air pollution because we feel, looking at the example of monitoring air pollution, using drones to monitor air pollution in Bradford, the same technology and the same learning can be applied for London.

What are the project’s ultimate long-term goals?

Long term we designed this programme in a way that we have two strategies. We have the local strategy which is working with the cities and understanding the opportunities and the barriers, and in parallel we have a national strategy where we’re working to understand what the future of the drone sector will look like for the UK.

At Nesta, we are not a champion for drones, we’re more of an impartial convener because we’re convening cities as a cohort with the stakeholders at the national level and we sit in between to help position the UK first when it comes to developing drone sectors.

What have been the main challenges the project has come up against?

Regulation is a challenge, and we have some guidance from the CAA, they’re one of our stakeholders. I have two industry experts, one of which is a commercial pilot and so he understands the whole system around flying planes and the safety elements of that, so when we talk about safety we have broken it down into two waves.

The source of the problem, is there a safety issue because of the drone itself? Because of the technical operating systems with which the drone will be operating? Is there a safety issue if a human is controlling? We have broken that down into who is impacted by that.

Another challenge of this project is the public sentiment. We haven’t yet measured the public sentiment but there is a general feel that there is a negative public sentiment around drone technology, which stems from the most advance applications being in the military. We’re hoping that through our research and work with the cities, by putting cities first, they are our channel to engage with the public.

What do you feel is key to promoting commercial drone application?

Going forward, when we have more resources and budget, we would want to engage with the public in a deeper way. That can range from town halls within cities to actually in person, having Q&As to understand where is this fear coming from and what are the concerns.

Tags : dronesdrones in citiesflying high challengeInnovate UKNestaNishita Dewan
Emma Calder

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