About Nesta

Nesta is an innovation foundation. For us, innovation means turning bold ideas into reality and changing lives for the better. We use our expertise, skills and funding in areas where there are big challenges facing society.

Five drone use cases that will help us map the future

The future of drones in cities could take many forms: it depends on the decisions we take in the next few years.

Will we promote the use of drones to boost the economy and support public services - or will we take a more conservative approach? Will we focus on economic benefit or only tolerate uses that are beneficial to society?

Regardless of what direction drones take, they are likely to be used for a diverse range of tasks. Drilling down into the detail of how drones are likely to be used requires us to understand these in detail.

Our five use cases

As part of the Flying High project, we’ve worked with our five partner cities to identify five promising use cases. Exploring these is a key part of our research. These use cases are:

  1. Urgent delivery of medical products between hospitals (in London)
  2. Surveying for urban regeneration (in Preston)
  3. Responding to traffic incidents (in the West Midlands)
  4. Supporting the fire service (in Bradford)
  5. Carrying medical goods across the Solent (from Southampton)

We want to get to the heart of what these would look like in practice. Rather than broad descriptions of how they might work, we are modelling examples of what we think they are most likely to look like. We think this approach can give us the clearest indicator of whether or not these uses are technically, economically and socially feasible.

Taking a practical approach

For each of the five use cases we’re digging into, we’re sketching out what a likely flightpath might look like: where the drones would take off, where they would fly, where they would land.

For urgent medical delivery, for instance, we are modelling drones carrying medical products between Guy’s Hospital and St Thomas’ Hospital; for Preston we are looking at drone-based surveying of real locations on the planned construction site of the M55 link road.

We’re assessing what the technical requirements for drones to carry out these missions would be: range, endurance, safety, autonomy and so on. These are all use cases that don’t currently exist - so we need to make reasonable guesses about the future, guided by expert interviews, support from the five cities’ technical leads, and the expertise of our in-house drones research team.

Once that’s done, we’ll also be modelling the economic and social feasibility of each of the five use cases. We need to understand not only whether our proposals are technically feasible, but what kind of business case might support them - for instance the cost savings they might bring, the size of the market or the profits they would generate. Alongside this is the broader benefit to society - less tangible but equally important, and covering things such as lives saved, quality of life improved, but also likely public acceptance.

These technical, economic and social feasibility studies will help us identify challenges that need to be solved in order to make the use cases a reality - and point towards how we might address these challenges.

They will also inform our broader analysis of how drone systems are likely to work in practice.

Part of
Flying High


Olivier Usher

Olivier Usher

Olivier Usher

Head of Research, Challenge Works


Oli leads Challenge Works research team. He helps to identify promising areas for innovation and choose the most impactful focus for new prizes.

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