Why we should care about drones in our cities

This spring, we are deep into phase two of Flying High, our programme to shape the future of urban drone use in the UK to meet local needs.

In phase two, we are designing the challenge phase of the project, expected to launch later in 2019, to accelerate development of urban drone services that bring public benefit to UK cities.

With our partners Livework Studio and Arup, we are:

  • Designing the testing capabilities and challenge prize specifications for socially beneficial, city-based drone use cases;
  • Investigating use cases from a service design perspective, including service models, and city and user requirements for operation at scale; and
  • Designing the specifications necessary to create testing environments to simulate low-altitude flying drones in city conditions, specifically to meet the needs of the use case scenarios and evaluate challenge entrants.

These activities will create the necessary groundwork to launch a series of stage-gate, outcome-based funding opportunities - through a challenge fund - to prove the viability of real-world urban drone applications.

As we continue this work, I take a look into the current support for drones used for social benefit and the potential impact they may have on our cities.

Understanding new technologies

New technologies always stir emotion and, as we’ve seen with the Heathrow and Gatwick incidents, can even lead to new legislation. Following the announcement by the Government and Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) regarding an extended no-fly zone and stop-and-search-powers for police, it is clear that the time is right to increase our understanding of drones. But this must be within the form of more nuanced discussion that doesn’t immediately call for black and white constraints.

Positivity towards drones for public good

Our Flying High programme looks to shape the future of drones in UK cities; we take a collaborative approach to working with key organisations, including city hall, hospitals and emergency services, as well as central government, academia, industry leaders and regulators.

During our discussions, we’ve found that local leaders are far more receptive to the use of drones when used for social good, such as the transport of urgent medical supplies or the fire service investigating burning buildings.

A survey we ran of MPs revealed that the majority would be in favour of new initiatives enabling the use of drones for the public’s benefit. More than four in five (83%) MPs supported the use of drones to monitor road pollution and air quality. Over three quarters (77%) were in favour of using drones to support fire and rescue services – as long as they relieved pressure on emergency services.

Understandably, the public and local leaders also want parameters placed on drone use to protect safety and privacy. These two are fundamental and non-negotiable.

"It is clear that the time is right to increase our understanding of drones."

Olivier Usher

How drones are already impacting local economies

Some companies are already looking at how drones will be the source of their new growth and success. For example, Network Rail has been using drones to assess and improve their rail network and Altitude Angel partnered with Manchester Airport and NATS to demonstrate an Unmanned Traffic Management (UTM) system with a programme called Operation Zenith.

This last example is interesting. As well as looking to improve operational efficiency, it showed that drones can be operated safely within an airport’s exclusion zone if the right safety protocols are in place.

In fact, the potential economic benefit to the UK economy is quite staggering. If managed responsibly, PWC estimates the drone industry could add £42 billion to UK GDP by 2030.

"Drones have huge potential to assist our public services and industry. It is vital that the sector contributes to shaping both the regulatory environment and the future market place."

Rt Hon Ben Wallace MP, Minister of State for Security

Finding solutions to modern challenges

There is a big challenge in developing technical systems alongside policy and regulations. Currently, exemptions for drone users prevent many sensible, viable and socially beneficial use cases from operating routinely and at scale. Permission should be made easier for some use cases by default, if they have a clear social benefit and they’re run by responsible operators.

Developing and deploying new technologies brings many complex challenges: the legislation needs to be right, the market must be ready and the technology has to be mature enough. One thing is clear - as industry has advanced, the use of drones in cities is becoming more of a reality.

Some of the most senior leaders in Government agree that drones have a positive role in the future of the UK. In fact, when speaking with Rt Hon Ben Wallace MP, Minister of State for Security, he said that: “Drones have huge potential to assist our public services and industry. It is vital that the sector contributes to shaping both the regulatory environment and the future market place.”

What we do know is that there must be highly visible public and political engagement, to ensure a collaborative approach towards using drones in our cities in a way that benefits society.

And we need to look at the many actors beyond the traditional aerospace sector. These include local government and transport authorities, experts in ground transport and logistics, construction, planning, communications, and potential service users (such as the NHS and emergency services). From there, we can create the rules, regulations and infrastructure needed to see drones used on a day to day basis in our cities.

Throughout our time working on Flying High, we’ve found that, despite the mis-use of drones in certain areas, and the stringent laws against drone use, the public, local organisations and MPs are all in favour of responsible drone use when the public benefits.

So, we must question whether the focus needs to be on fewer constraints and more on ensuring appropriate and safe use of drones in public spaces. This requires more rigorous engagement and discussion with all parties about how modern technology can be utilised for the benefit of society as a whole.


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.

View profile