Nesta’s Challenge Prize Centre, in partnership with Innovate UK, has today released its findings from the first phase of the Flying High programme, outlining the opportunities and challenges for implementing drone technology in UK cities.
Flying High comprises a collaborative engagement with five UK city-regions chosen earlier this year (Bradford, London, Preston, Southampton and the West Midlands), along with the NHS, police and fire services, national stakeholders from central government, technology experts, industry leaders, academics and regulators. The challenge seeks to position the UK to become a global leader in shaping drone systems that place people’s needs first.
The Flying High team worked closely with these different stakeholders to explore the current state and future ambitions for drones in urban environments in the UK.
In partnership with the Flying High cities, five socially beneficial use cases were analysed to investigate their technical, social and economic implications. These are:
• Medical delivery within London – a drone delivery network for carrying urgent medical products between NHS facilities, which would routinely carry products such as pathology samples, blood products and equipment over relatively short distances between hospitals in a network
• Traffic incident response in the West Midlands – responding to traffic incidents in the West Midlands to support the emergency services prior to their arrival and while they are on-site, allowing them to allocate the right resources and respond more effectively
• Fire response in Bradford – emergency response drones for West Yorkshire Fire and Rescue service. Drones would provide high-quality information to support emergency call handlersand fire ground commanders, arriving on the scene faster than is currently possible and helping staff plan an appropriate response for the seriousness of the incident
• Construction and regeneration in Preston – drone services supporting construction work for urban projects. This would involve routine use of drones prior to and during construction, in order to survey sites and gather real-time information on the progress of works.
• Medical delivery across the Solent – linking Southampton across the Solent to the Isle of Wight using a delivery drone. Drones could carry light payloads of up to a few kilos over distances of around 20 miles, with medical deliveries of products being a key benefit.
The key findings from this phase of Flying High, which featured a number of work streams including public impact analysis, systems research, industry mapping and key stakeholder engagement, are outlined below:
• Drones can bring benefits to UK cities – cities are excited about the possibilities that drones can bring, particularly in terms of critical public services, but are also wary of tech-led buzz that can gloss over concerns of privacy, safety and nuisance. Cities want to seize the opportunity behind drones but do it in a way that responds to what their citizens demand.
Professor Tony Young, national clinical lead for innovation at NHS England, said: “We want to harness the massive potential of technology in the NHS to deliver improved patient care and the use of drones offers exciting possibilities.”
The five cities examined a wide array of tasks that drones can perform in complex environments, flight beyond the operator’s visual line of sight, autonomy and precision flight are key, as is the development of an unmanned traffic management (UTM) system to safely manage airspace.
Alongside technological development, regulation needs to evolve to allow these use cases to operate. And infrastructure like communications networks and UTM systems will need to be built.
However, the project has also identified a potential threat, that UK policy responses to drones are behind those of leading countries. The US, EU and Singapore in particular, have taken bigger steps towards reforming regulations, creating testbeds and supporting businesses with innovative ideas.
Aviation Minister Baroness Sugg, commented: “The Flying High project is a fantastic example of how much drones can help us in our daily lives. Drones have the potential to bring great social and economic benefits to the country and we want the UK to be a global leader in drone services.
“We have begun introducing a world class legal framework to ensure this exciting technology is used safely and responsibly to help the industry thrive.”
The key recommendation of this report is to organise major challenge prizes related to the five use cases that have been investigated. This process would drive innovation in the key technical barriers to drone development, while forming the core of a continued programme of public and political engagement. Brought together, this will allow the UK to position itself to take the lead in the development of drone technology, and therefore in the economic benefits- according to recent research from PwC, drone technology has the potential to increase UK GDP by £42 billion (or 2%) by 2030.
In addition to the challenge prizes, the report recommends that regulation be updated to reflect advances in drone technology, particularly around management of urban airspace; and investment in the infrastructure that drones will need if they are ever to operate at large scale.