England’s capital city is well-positioned to take to the skies to bolster a series of its public services, following the first phase of Nesta’s Flying High Challenge.
The initiative, which was launched earlier this year, has been exploring the integration of UAV technology in urbanised regions across different use cases. London, alongwith Bradford, Preston, Southampton and the West Midlands, was selected to take part in the programme in February.
The Mayor’s Transport Strategy (MTS) estimates that London’s population will grow from nine million people today to 10.8m by 2041.
The high number of people on the ground and intensity of activity in London is likely to create much higher demand for the use of the airspace and the need to make decisions about what uses to prioritise, so London’s urban airspace should be seen as a valuable asset with limited capacity.
To get the most benefit from the airspace, drone use in London should be focused on high-need uses that bring societal benefit, based on public need rather than commercial opportunity. Decision-making should be guided with respect to safety, privacy, security, need, transparency, openness and accountability along with the above principles. Nesta’s initial work suggests that emergency responder, growth management and congestion solution applications may be appropriate for London.
Nesta claims that the greatest public benefit of drones is the way that they can support the emergency services. In the short-term drones can help with search and rescue, surveying incident and crime scenes and supporting the Fire Brigade in investigating burning buildings.
These uses can ultimately save people’s lives and London’s emergency services are already trialling such use cases. This work should continue and be supported at a strategic and local level. Regulation and airspace management should continue to support and enable these use cases.
With an increasing population, London’s essential services will need to work harder, faster and reduce costs. This should be achieved in a way that supports the healthy streets approach and reduces environmental impact despite high levels of congestion throughout London. London needs innovative solutions to transport challenges to create greater efficiencies in transport, reduce emissions, improve the urban experience on the ground, and support good growth, including healthy, inclusive, resilient development.
In the long term, drone technology could enable new modes of zero-emission mobility with enhanced reliability and reduced travel times for critical journeys. Focused on London’s essential services, the technology could reduce costs, save lives and enhance the quality of service. Given London’s limited airspace capacity, these mobility opportunities should be focused on ‘missions’ that provide direct public benefit and only once they are fully proven to be safe.
In addition, Nesta outlined London’s role as a leader in adopting the technology. The report stated: “London’s ability to convene industry leaders, attract capital investment and access world leading universities give it a clear role to play in the research and development process. This opportunity should support UK-wide R&D opportunities in drone technologies and put the UK drone industry on the world stage.”
While London has the ability to fly the flag for new technologies, Nesta acknowledges the practicality limitations.
It added: “However, due to its complexity and density, London should not be the first place to trial or pilot disruptive, high-risk technologies and applications. Rather, London should set the challenges and parameters to which the scaled deployment of an application should adhere, followed by mature trials and demonstrations once they have been proven in more controlled environments.
“Such trials are likely to focus on testing the response of drone systems in urban environments. Demonstrations would be focused on generating feedback from public and other stakeholders.”
Over the coming year, London and its strategic partners should identify and assemble resources to further investigate and address the opportunities outlined in this vision, using the following outline of near-term actions as a roadmap:
1. Appoint a steering group, including TfL, GLA, boroughs and national stakeholders, focused on shaping London’s approach to drones, including drone policy and regulations, in the interest of Londoners.
2. Explore opportunities to engage the public and identify what is acceptable and supported by Londoners.
3. Develop and define principles for the use of London’s urban airspace and how it should be managed, and take steps to develop policy and lobby national, European and international bodies to enable this approach.
4. Explore drone applications that provide safety, societal and other public benefits and consider how these can be brought forward appropriately.
5. Engage industry and facilitate opportunities for the development and deployment of drone technologies to support delivery of London’s strategic objectives.