In the past few years, drones have gone from oddity to ubiquity. Prices have plummeted and the technology has raced ahead. They are now widely used for tasks like inspecting infrastructure, filming and supporting emergency services. Soon, if some companies are to be believed, we will see them delivering parcels, moving freight and even carrying people.
Drones are at a crossroads.
Drones are already useful, with many public service and commercial use cases. But there are some things holding back their growth, the main being that drones currently cannot travel far.
These constraints will soon be gone.
Within a few years, we can expect autonomous piloting technologies and next-generation communications networks to come on line. Drones will be able to operate far away from their remote pilot - or even without a pilot at all. This will further cut operational costs and will extend their useful range. Rather than having to operate within a few hundred metres from their pilot, drones will be able to roam far and wide, limited only by the power stored in their batteries.
This combination of demand and new technology has the potential to supercharge the spread of drone use in cities.
Before drones completely dominate urban skies, we think it’s worth taking a deep breath.
There will be major decisions to make in the next couple of years, around the regulation, infrastructure and operations of these drone systems. These choices will shape how drone systems look many decades into the future.
There will be pragmatic decisions to make: about what infrastructure to build; about how drone systems will need to be tailored to the unique needs of different cities; not to mention tradeoffs between economic growth and public inconvenience.
There will also be decisions of principle: are drones an unalloyed good, that needs to be encouraged as much as possible? Or do we need to treat them with more caution: like cars, a technology that gave enormous freedom to move at a cost of pollution and death on the roads; a technology that needs to be controlled and regulated tightly?
The rollout of new technologies always involves choices like these. In the past, they haven’t always been made well: public disquiet over nuclear power, GM crops and vaccines were all in part a failure of public engagement. Legitimate concerns were ignored, and what could have been useful public debates degenerated into toxic dialogues.
We want the decisions that shape the development of drones in decades to come to be made openly and democratically, and not just reflect the commercial priorities of a few big companies - public opinion be damned.
There is a real risk that drones could become political kryptonite. Already, polling suggests they are seen mainly as a nuisance: delivering drugs into jails, interfering with landing airliners, and being used as a weapon of war. Public tolerance, despite the many positive things drones are used for, is fragile.
That’s why we’re launching a major consultation exercise with UK cities today.
The Flying High Challenge puts cities in the pilot’s seat. Between now and spring 2018, we will be working with a selected group of cities to clarify their visions for how drone systems should work, what regulations need to be in place, what use cases should be promoted and which should be prohibited.
The first step is to identify the key cities we will work on. We’ll be holding an open call for cities to respond to from 4 December 2017, when we'll be looking for a range of cities - different sizes, geographies and visions for the future - to help us work through these complex issues.
The next stage of Flying High, later in 2018, will be to bring these cities and drone companies together: cities setting challenges for drone companies to solve, offering opportunities to test out their technologies, first in controlled settings and then in real urban environments.
We think this is the best model for encouraging the development of drones in a socially beneficial manner: innovating responsibly, and experimenting safely.
If you are a representative of a city interested in participating in the Flying High programme, please register your interest.
Flying High is part of the Government’s Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund, in partnership with Innovate UK, and with the support of the Civil Aviation Authority and the Government’s Transport and Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy departments.
Visit the Flying High Challenge website to find out more.