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Five cities selected to develop future of drone operations

Today, we are pleased to announce the five pioneering cities that we are partnering with this year to design how drone technology could operate in complex city environments to address local needs.

This announcement follows an open call launched in November by Nesta’s Challenge Prize Centre as part of the Flying High Challenge, developed in partnership with Innovate UK.

Bradford, London, Preston, Southampton and the West Midlands will now work with the Flying High team over the next five months to look at how drones could be used in their communities. From using drones to support public services to the commercial opportunities that might exist, they’ll explore the public attitudes, environmental impact, logistics and safety of drones operating in complex urban environments.

Each city boasts credentials in areas from aerospace to robotics and autonomous vehicles, and many have unique approaches to public engagement and local economic development, making them exceptionally well placed to deliver on both the technical and societal aspects of the programme.  

Meet the cities


Bradford District has a strong history of industrial innovation and entrepreneurialism, achieved through grasping new technology. It is a city of over half a million people and a £10 billion economy – the eighth largest in England – with a diverse and growing population and a varied landscape where densely populated urban areas adjoin large open spaces. The city sees huge potential for drones to support delivery of the district’s priorities; including job growth within the growing tech community, improved environmental management, better quality housing and energy efficiency, improved health outcomes and safer communities.  


Europe’s first mega-city is also its tech and financial centre. 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. If they can be safely and sensibly integrated in London, they can be integrated anywhere. London has experienced initial use of drones for safer infrastructure inspections and helping the capital’s emergency services, and now needs to actively engage in how this market will develop in future.


Preston is the main urban centre in a wider Lancashire city region that is the location of the largest cluster of aerospace activity in the UK. The city is at the forefront of identifying and developing civic drone applications, and is the home of the ‘Civic Drone Centre’ - established by the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) in 2014 to bring together local authorities, communities and businesses to support novel drone solutions. Drones have already begun to be used in Preston in building inspection, fire and rescue services and to assist the Environment Agency. The city, in partnership with UCLan, will explore other areas of city need where drones could play a role, including flood management, assisting police helicopters, and upgrading road networks.


Southampton is one of the UK’s major port cities, a global gateway and regional transport hub. Southampton City Council has a vision to accelerate the safe delivery of public services and commercial activity using remotely piloted and autonomous drone systems, notably around port safety, blue light services and offshore logistics. The council is working in collaboration with the University of Southampton, which has very strong drone and autonomous systems expertise as the leader of a large consortium project, CASCADE, looking at implementation of drones in civil airspace. Southampton City Council also participates in the EPSRC Future Cities project from a drone perspective; and the Airstart project with the Royal National Lifeboat Institute (RNLI) investigating safe routine operation of small UAS’ Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS).

West Midlands

A large region and strategic centre for the country encompassing the cities of Birmingham, Coventry and Wolverhampton. The West Midlands boasts two international airports, several universities, multiple collaborating local authorities and 2.8 million residents. The region is interested in UAV use cases surrounding the world class ‘UK City of Culture 2021’ and Commonwealth Games events. Innovative R&D across the region offers other potential areas of synergy with Flying High, including the construction of a cutting-edge testbed for Connected and Autonomous Vehicles. The West Midlands brings a diverse and expansive consortium which is united by the ambition to realise drone use, not just as a strategic exercise, but a deliverable reality, hoping to strike the necessary balance between ambition and regulation.

For more information about the programme, visit: flyinghighchallenge.org.


Part of
Flying High


Kathy Nothstine

Kathy Nothstine

Kathy Nothstine

Head of Future Cities, Challenge Works


At Challenge Works, Kathy is the Head of Future Cities, where she focuses on place-based innovation and empowering cities to shape their destiny.

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