While advancements are emerging from the commercial UAV sector thick and fast, the technology is yet to break its way into the mainstream and revolutionise day-to-day life.
Despite the fact that a series of road blocks, such as regulations, permissions, costs and public sentiments, have impacted the delivery of drones in cities around the world, leading names from within the industry are looking to change the game and bring drones further into the spotlight.
With programmes being introduced around the world to spearhead drone integration, including Nesta’s Flying High Challenge in the UK and the FAA and Department of Transport’s pilot programme in America, it would seem that commercial drones in urban areas are on the brink of becoming reality.
In the UK, Nesta is driving the march for smart cities with its Flying High Challenge, a programme designed to develop use cases across five cities and regions in the UK.
As the project looks to explore a variety of technology, the organisation body recognises how important forging meaningful community relationships is to ensuring the success of the Flying High Challenge.
Nishita Dewan, the lead on the Flying High Challenge, explained to Commercial Drone Professional that a key aspect to consider throughout all phases of the programme is the public’s opinions of UAVs and dispelling negative perceptions.
She said: “There is a general feeling that there is a negative public sentiment around drone technology because it stems from the most advanced applications being in the military, so what we’re hoping is that through our research and work with the cities, by putting cities first, they are our channel to engage with the public.
“At this level we’re not engaging with the national public, but through cities we are engaging with local communities and we’re trying to understand the specifics around the concerns and how can we can make sure that when we do the granular research around the use cases that we try and address some of those concerns.
“Our goal is to help try and shift that public sentiment from this negative place to a neutral place to hopefully more of a positive place.”
While Dewan tells Commercial Drone Professional that she believes much of the negative public sentiment that currently exists surrounding drones is due to the most advance uses being in the military, she also acknowledges it is detrimental to the development of the technology in cities if they are unnecessarily introduced.
“What is the problem the city is facing and how is a drone a channel to solve that problem?” She adds. “Drones are not the solution to all of your problems, that’s not what we’re saying, we’re saying let’s work with you to identify what are the challenges in your city, in some cases it’s like a lot of traffic, so could drones be used to actually survey the congestion or to be used for post-accident monitoring.
“Some cities have a lot of regeneration going on so there’s actually an interest in using drones for the monitoring and surveillance of construction sites, so taking a problem first approach.”
While a series of problems have inevitably been encountered and resolved during this project, one of the distinct highlights is the level of stakeholder engagement.
Dewan tells CDP that the level of stakeholder engagement was one of three criteria that the project applicants were assessed on before being offered participation in the challenge, as well as strength of vision and kind contributions.
Following a three-week deliberation, an external committee of industry experts, which was commissioned with the task to allow Nesta to remain impartial, deemed that London, Bradford, Preston, Southampton and the West Midlands, submitted the most well-rounded submissions.
Roger Gardner, the University of Southampton’s aerospace sector advisor, told Commercial Drone Professional that he believes the city was able to secure a position in the programme due to, in part, its geographical location as a coastal city.
He said: “I thought it would be a suitable city because it had such a diverse selection of potential uses for drones. It’s extremely characteristic of being a port city so that adds a bunch of different dimensions, which are things that other cities probably wouldn’t have.
“We also have advantages in some of the typical areas of activity. First the highways, the highways contractor is already drones in some of its activities but the cities council is interested to take that further.”
Another company that played a substantial role in helping its home city land a place on the project was Transport for London. With a vast rail and road network, the company is looking to embed unmanned vehicles into its operations in a bid to better serve its bevy of commuters.
TfL’s foresight manager in the Transport Innovation Directorate Gareth Sumner, tells Commercial Drone Professional: “The drone industry has expanded significantly in recent years and London’s public sector has already trialled using drones in various situations. This includes inspecting the construction of the Elizabeth Line and tactical operations by the Met Police.
“The capital has the busiest and most heavily regulated airspace in the UK, and the Nesta challenge will allow the city to have serious conversations about if, how and where drones could safely be used in future for the benefit of the city. If they can be safely and sensibly integrated in London, they can be integrated anywhere.
“As part of Nesta challenge we will be exploring the feasibility and appropriateness of a wide range of use cases including asset inspection, support to the emergency services and delivery of critical medical items.”
Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, the UAS Integration Pilot Program, which is being run by the U.S. Transportation Department with guidance from the FAA, will see 10 selectees develop use-cases in partnership with industry leaders.
The UAS Integration Pilot Program is an opportunity for state, local and tribal governments to partner with private sector entities, such as UAV operators or manufacturers, to accelerate safe UAS integration.
A spokesperson for Intel explains: “The Federal Aviation Administration’s Unmanned Aircraft System Integration Pilot Program has brought together the cross section of partners necessary to carry out the type of meaningful testing that will drive benefits for communities across the country and guide industry growth. Intel is pleased to have joined tremendous partners and to be included as a participant in the UAS Integration Pilot Program.”
The programme is expected to foster a ‘meaningful dialogue’ on the balance between local and national interests related to UAV integration, and provide actionable information to the USDOT on expanded and universal integration of UAS into the National Airspace System.
The 10 selectees include Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, the City of San Diego, Virginia Tech, Kansas Department of Transportation and North Carolina Department of Transportation.
Much like the Flying High Challenge, the FAA and Department of Transport’s UAS Integration Pilot Program is reliant on state organisations and bodies collaborating with UAV specialists.
While companies such as Fortem, Intel, Insitu, Uber and Flirtey has taken on roles supporting selectees, industry-leader DJI and Amazon have been left out in the dark.
Despite the fact it was not listed as one of the supporting partners, DJI recently appealed to take on a hands on role within the project.
“Regulators and governments want to develop safe systems that encourage the beneficial uses of drones while addressing concerns about them, and today’s announcement is a major step forward in this effort,” said Brendan Schulman, DJI vice president of policy and legal affairs.
“By connecting state, local and tribal governments with industry partners and federal support, the Integration Pilot Program makes it easier to find ways for American businesses, governments and individuals to put drones to good uses all across the country.”
One of the companies that did manage to secure a place as one of the leading lights driving innovation in the project was Fortem Technologies.
The company has inked a partnership deal with the North Carolina Department of Transportation (DOT).
“The UAS IPP will rapidly accelerate the advancement of BVLOS flight, enabling the commercialisation of drone delivery, search and rescue, safety inspections, delivery of medical supplies, and so many other services that will not only improve our lives, but will also aid in saving lives,” said Fortem Technologies CEO Timothy Bean.
While there is still a long way to go before a drone can be seen making deliveries down Regent’s Street or offering life-saving support on Fifth Avenue, these projects have taken vital steps forward in fostering relations between fellow industry organisations, addressing public concerns surrounding UAVs and collecting the information needed to safely integrate drones into the world’s most developed areas.