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Flying High: Empowering cities to decide the future of drones

Urgent medical deliveries from hospital to hospital ... Arriving first to a car crash scene to assess damages... Investigating a burning building... Delivering blood to a hospital over sea to an island... Performing dangerous tasks quickly and safely on a construction site...

These are just some examples of the useful tasks that drones could perform in cities around the UK, investigated in the Flying High project and presented today in a new report.

We’ve spent the past six months working with five city-regions - Bradford, Preston, London, Southampton and the West Midlands region - to learn what these places would like to see drones do (or not do) in their communities in the future. We worked with the NHS, police and fire services, central government, technology experts, industry leaders, academics and regulators to assess the technical feasibility and social and economic advantages of a use case in each city.

This is what we found:

  • Cities are enthusiastic about the benefits drones can bring. The cities we worked with are keen to take advantage of drones to perform things more quickly or more safely than humans can, and reap potential cost-savings. They are also motivated to support local R&D of drone enabling technology to promote regional and national industrial strengths.
  • People should shape how drone technology evolves. In each city, we heard from people excited by the many interesting things drones could do - from carrying parcels to providing entertainment to searching for missing persons - but they were also concerned about the safety of drones flying overhead and if they would invade their privacy or disrupt their views. Cities are eager to shape this technology - with robust public engagement - to promote the greatest possible social good.
  • True benefits won’t be realised unless drones can operate safely in complex environments at scale. The technology already exists to allow drones to do many useful things in cities today - in isolation. However, we will never fully realise the economic and social benefits unless technology, infrastructure and regulations evolve to enable complex, autonomous drones to work together safely in our urban airspace in a way that responds to what people want.

According to recent research from PwC, drone technology has the potential to increase UK GDP by £42 billion (or two percent) by 2030. If the UK is to seize this opportunity, key technical barriers need to be addressed, but most importantly the public needs to be able to trust that drones will be used for good, safely and securely, and supporting broader public goals around mobility, public services and economic growth.

So what’s next?

We think that designing challenge prizes are key to unlocking these benefits in the UK. Challenge prizes will drive innovation to address technical barriers to drone development, guided by the visions of the cities and desires of the public.

We intend to work with government, regulators and city-led consortia to invite industry to compete to solve these problems by developing, testing and demonstrating their solutions - ultimately in real urban environments - informed by meaningful public engagement.

Read the full report here.

Author

Kathy Nothstine

Kathy Nothstine

Kathy Nothstine

Lead, Future Cities

Kathy is the Lead for Future Cities in the Challenge Prize Centre working on the future of urban transport and global cities.

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Olivier Usher

Olivier Usher

Olivier Usher

Lead, Research and Impact

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

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Tris Dyson

Tris Dyson

Tris Dyson

Executive Director

Tris Dyson is the Executive Director of Nesta’s Centre for Challenge Prizes.

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