OPINION: Three things that need to happen before the drone economy can take flight


With more and more commercial applications being bought to market, it is a commonly accepted fact that the UK’s airspace is going to get increasingly busy.

Following PwC’s recent drone report, Skies without Limits, director Elaine Whyte has outlined three of the key areas that must be addressed before the UK can unlock its commercial drone potential.

Over 76,000 drones will be in UK skies by 2030. That was one of the headline findings from our Skies without Limits report – but what needs to happen for this forecast to turn into a reality?

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I discussed in my previous blog that key to unlocking the potential of the drone economy is trust, whether that be societal acceptance of the impact drones will have on the future of work, or privacy regulation as these devices collect more and more data.

The level of drone adoption we have forecast will bring with it a requirement for regulation to ensure safety in the skies; and society’s trust will have to be earned as issues around the ethical use of the drone data have to be resolved. But first of all, the technology has to hit the inflection point where drones move from being unusual to being ubiquitous.

Drone technology: ready for take-off

Like all apparent technology revolutions, the drone economy is really an evolution. Drone technology has roots that stretch back decades to largely military use cases, but these are not the drones that will populate civilian skies. The small, vertical lift off, multiple-propeller driven drones that will make up the vast majority of these 76,000 drones have their developmental DNA in remote controlled aircraft and smartphone technology.

These relatively compact devices shot into general consciousness in 2013 when Jeff Bezos first talked about Amazon Prime Air, suggesting that drones could be used for delivering goods as little as 30 minutes after an order is placed. We’re not there yet, but we’re moving in that direction.

Recent collaborations from the likes of Aston Martin, Rolls Royce and Cranfield University partnering in the development of a luxurious flying autonomous hybrid-electric vehicle underscore that we’re moving from lightweight, fairly simple devices carrying cameras to high-tech machines with the potential to carry heavy payloads including people. Advances in wireless, camera and sensor technology, combined with increased consumer and business demand, greater supply and lower costs have now placed drones at a price point that makes their use attractive for both business and society as a whole. But technology alone will not drive the drone economy.

Regulation: fasten your seat-belt

When Bezos made his famous announcement he also pointed out that nothing could happen until the Federal Aviation Administration introduced the appropriate regulation. Something similar holds true in the UK. Our projections in Skies without Limits of a £42 billion uplift to GDP and 628,000 new jobs by 2030, will require current regulations to evolve.

Drones differ from other emerging technologies, such as artificial intelligence (AI), in that their use is subject to regulation to ensure airspace safety. Other limitations related to flying in congested areas and collecting personal data, for example by flying near buildings and people or over roads, also need to be considered. Indeed from the 30 July 2018 new laws give police the power to seize drones that are flying above 400 feet and within one kilometre of airport boundaries.

The UK Government is committed to remaining at the forefront of the global drones market so that the economic potential can be realised whilst prioritising the safety and security of UK citizens. Similarly, and building on the new legislation, the Department for Transport is to consult on further measures to prevent the misuse of drones and address safety issues in a market predicted for rapid growth.

Societal Acceptance: in drones we trust

The final piece in the jigsaw is societal acceptance. At first glance it might look as though this has already been achieved. With 1.5 million drones estimated to have been sold last Christmas, it would be tempting to assume that society at large is already well on the way to accepting drones. But there is a major difference between how consumers and large organisations will be using them.

Societal acceptance will also be given a boost as people come to appreciate the huge potential for good that drones can offer.

As drones become more commonplace, businesses and public services will need to use them responsibly and ethically to allay public concerns over safety, privacy and misuse, particularly as drones become autonomous.

Societal acceptance will also be given a boost as people come to appreciate the huge potential for good that drones can deliver. No one questions the use of helicopters in search and rescue missions, in the fight against crime, or for medical emergencies. But helicopters cost thousands of pounds per flight. Drones are not about to replace helicopters in the short term, but they could be used in situations where helicopters are not feasible. A recent proof of concept focusing on medical deliveries by drone between two London hospitals concluded that there are ‘no insurmountable barriers to this use case being feasible’, but the difficulties of managing complex urban airspace remain.

The drone industry will also play a huge role in scientific research – they can be highly effective in environmental monitoring; for example, by tracking ice flow in the Arctic. These types of use cases will, I believe, result in a shift in societal perception of drones as a technology that delivers positive social, environmental and financial outcomes.

Developments in drone technology alone are of course not enough to unlock the full economic potential of drones. To flourish in the drone economy organisations must balance the technology itself with an understanding of the impact from regulation, whilst also paying close attention to societal acceptance levels.

Tags : commercial UAVdronesEliane Whyte
Emma Calder

The author Emma Calder

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