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A vision for how London could use drone technology

London's vision for urban drone technology

Photo: Jason Andrews

Why we are talking about the future of drones in London

London is a diverse, rapidly growing city

London is growing. It attracts attention, visitors and new residents from all over the world drawn by its heritage, culture, diversity, economy and progressive approach. But like any world city, London must solve big, strategic challenges, such as congestion and air quality, if it is to protect and enhance the quality of life of its residents and visitors.

The Mayor’s Transport Strategy (MTS) estimates that London’s population will grow from nine million people today to 10.8 million by 2041. The MTS acknowledges that without further intervention “rising traffic and falling road capacity for private vehicles means that congestion will rise for essential traffic” while “industry trends and economic growth will lead to more freight traffic, especially vans” (MTS p. 22, 23).

Mayor’s Transport Strategy

The Mayor’s Transport Strategy (MTS), published by Mayor Sadiq Khan in March 2018, states the Mayor’s policies and proposals to reshape transport in London, with a time horizon of 2041. The MTS is based on the Healthy Streets Approach and prioritises human health and experience. The three key themes of the strategy are: 1) Healthy Streets and Healthy People (creating a street experience that encourages walking, cycling and public transport over car dependency), 2) a Good Public Transport experience (shifting from private car to public transport use) and 3) New Homes and Jobs (planning the future city around walking, cycling and public transport use to unlock growth in new areas and create opportunities for ‘good growth’ that benefits everyone). London’s approach to drones should be underpinned by the principles of the MTS to create Healthy Streets, a better public transport experience and ‘good growth’.

Analysis by Inrix (2016) shows that London has the seventh-worst rate of traffic congestion in the world; further, London has been listed as one of the European capitals with the worst air pollution. Road transport is responsible for half of the main air pollutants, with cars contributing 14 percent of nitrogen oxides and 56 percent of particulate matter less than 2.5 microns in diameter (MTS p.13). The MTS commits TfL to several significant measures that will help tackle these challenges including the Elizabeth Line, Crossrail 2, new cycling infrastructure, funding for electric vehicle infrastructure and the Ultra Low Emission Zone. However the world is changing and these measures alone may not be enough to meet the needs of a changing city.

London is a major financial services centre, tech industry hub, and global draw for culture and tourism. The Global Financial Centres Index ranks London as the number one financial centre in the world based on scores relating to business environment, financial sector development, infrastructure, human capital and reputational factors. Further, the UK is Europe’s leading country for global tech investors, with “British tech firms attracting more venture capital funding than any other European country in 2017. London’s tech sector continues to fuel the growth of the UK’s digital economy, with the capital’s tech firms raising a record £2.45 billion and accounting for around 80 per cent of all UK venture capital tech funding in 2017” – according to a study by Pitchbook commissioned by London & Partners.

London’s government has a progressive policy framework delivered through a strong public sector including a respected transport authority recognised for integration and innovation. London was the first city in the UK to directly elect a mayor, its transport system was the first in the world to embrace contactless payment systems and it was the first city in the UK and one of the first and largest cities in the world to introduce congestion pricing.

The UK’s most complex airspace offers an important test case for urban drone use

Airports, restricted areas and a dense urban core make London a unique environment for drones

London’s airspace is one of the most complex places to introduce innovations. London has the largest collective airport system in the world and its airspace is the most congested in the world, handling more than 170 million passenger journeys in 2017; 30 million more than the next busiest city, New York. Heathrow is the busiest airport in Europe and the seventh-busiest in the world. Over the next 20 years, the industry estimates a doubling of the world’s aircraft fleet, according to Chris Grayling, the transport secretary.

London’s urban airspace is equally complicated. London has some of the highest population densities and largest numbers of tall buildings in the UK. This combined with numerous no fly zones and a complex patchwork of land ownership means that flying drones in London is more challenging than any other UK city.

Today, airspace is regulated and managed to enable traditional forms of commercial, military and recreational aviation to operate safely. The focus is on traditional airports and long-range routes, operating (in general) high above London’s urban area. Outside of airports, the interaction of aviation with the city is via a limited number of small aircraft operating at lower altitudes (eg helicopters) as well as the environmental impacts of both smaller and larger aircraft, such as carbon emissions and noise.

Drones could unlock new ways to use the city’s low-altitude airspace if that airspace is made available to them. This urban airspace has direct relationships with the city through multiple landing points and direct adjacencies with buildings and infrastructure and existing manned aircraft such as helicopters. Unlocking this airspace is high-risk and could have a significant effect on the city beneath and around it, directly affecting many more Londoners than traditional aviation. The approach to its use must be risk-based and meet the legitimate needs of those on the ground, while protecting existing aviation.

London is a thought leader on urban transport and can be the same for the urban integration of drones

London is a respected convener and can help shape the national discussion about drone use

London's diverse geographic, cultural and business landscapes create opportunities for testing and deploying a wide range of innovative and socially beneficial drone applications. London has a unique urban fabric that combines diverse buildings, infrastructure and natural assets. This mix means that tourist destinations and world heritage sites, hyper-dense hubs and towering skyscrapers, metropolitan centres and residential neighbourhoods are all embedded within a network of green spaces.

This context creates a mix of opportunities and constraints for the drone industry to tackle, but a considered approach will be essential. Innovative deployment of drones could impact the quality of life of millions; for this impact to be positive, careful thought is required to understand what constitutes appropriate use. This will require diverse stakeholders to work together in new ways that challenge the status quo.

While the complexity of London should not make it the first place to test disruptive, high-risk technologies, innovators should be able to look to London to set the opportunities, challenges and parameters of what will ultimately be acceptable.

London is a respected convener and has the opportunity to bring together diverse partners, including respected service providers like the NHS, private enterprise and the R&D community along with national regulators to shape urban drone use. National and international policymakers look to London as a trendsetter for policy around transport, urban development and economic growth. How it approaches the technological, regulatory, policy and practical challenges that sit around urban drone operations can help to position the UK as a world leader in urban deployment of drone technologies.

This influence brings the responsibility to define a pragmatic and safety-first approach that is in the interests of the public. While the complexity of London should not make it the first place to test disruptive, high-risk technologies, innovators should be able to look to London to set the opportunities, challenges and parameters of what will ultimately be acceptable. In line with the Smarter London Together strategy, released in June 2018, which compels London to improve its ability to adapt, scale and amplify the best innovations, so too should any future policy around drones be flexible, adaptable and scalable.

If it continues the momentum of the Flying High project, London can define how drones should be used in London to benefit Londoners and influence drone deployment in cities all over the world. To do this, it must set the parameters for the drone industry to meet and the challenges it must solve.

What should guide drone policy development in London?

London Flying High

The strategy for London’s urban airspace should be risk-based, city-led, adaptive and focused on the long term

The unique nature of urban airspace and the differences from traditional airspace should be recognised in the way that it is regulated and managed. Unlocking airspace in London presents opportunities and risks for all Londoners. Decisions on the use, management and operation of London’s urban airspace should be made by the city government in close collaboration with central government and the regulators, on behalf of Londoners. A steering group should be created and made up of those affected by the opportunities and risks of drone use. This may be through the continuation of the task force convened for London’s participation in the Flying High project, paired with a senior level board. The city must also engage the drone industry to fully understand the capabilities and trajectory of drone technologies.

Decisions London makes now will affect unknown opportunities in the future. An adaptive governance approach focused on safety and learning should be applied, setting the principles and considering the appropriateness of new technologies. This should include those not yet mature, recognising that decisions made today will define how London’s airspace will be used and who uses it, for generations.

Decisions on the use, management and operation of London’s urban airspace should be made by the city government in close collaboration with central government and the regulators, on behalf of Londoners.

Lessons should be learned from traditional aviation and mature uses such as inspection drones. Flexible policies should be put in place to guide more long-term and speculative uses and create the conditions that support the shaping and development of appropriate applications in the future. Further, lessons learned and knowledge shared by other cities in the UK and globally should inform the path that London chooses to take.

London should collaborate with local and national stakeholders to develop its own principles and approach to urban drone use and policy. A set of guiding principles, such as those recommended below, should be developed as a foundation for any future public decision-making or policy development governing drone use in London. These foundational concepts can form the basis for how London chooses to approach drone use. Some can be applied directly by London government, others will require lobbying to other national and international regulators.

Recommended principles to guide future drone development in London

Drone development in London should be safe, reflect the needs of the city, and take a long-term flexible perspective

  1. Place safety and security first. Any approach to drone usage in London must place the safety and security of Londoners above all else.
  2. Recognise and define the uniqueness of urban airspace. Urban airspace is different from the space traditionally occupied by commercial aviation. What happens in London’s low-altitude urban airspace should directly support what happens in London’s streets, buildings and public spaces. This should be true regardless of whether it is manned or unmanned, manually controlled or autonomous. London’s approach should be led by the city, considering the opportunities as well as the impacts including noise, privacy, security and environmental impact.
  3. Assess the public viewpoint and align with existing policy objectives. Public engagement should be a key part of future drone policy development and Londoners should be invited to explore, understand and collaborate with decision-makers to shape the future of drone use. Future policy should support the Healthy Streets Approach, align with the principles of good growth as articulated in the MTS, address London’s strategic challenges (in line with the London Plan) and unlock airspace value for Londoners.
  4. Prioritise publicly beneficial and critical uses. Drone uses that offer true public benefit should be prioritised. Drone use by the emergency services and public sector should take precedence over commercial activity. Recreational drone use should, in general, be deemed unsuitable.
  5. Work with the drone industry, investors and academia to identify and utilise the unique capabilities of drones and minimise any negative impact. Drone use should be limited to applications that best utilise the unique capabilities of drone technology (eg for critical, time-sensitive operations or activities that can be done by drones more quickly, accurately and safely than by humans). London should leverage its ability to convene experts and assemble resources to work closely with the drone industry to develop these capabilities for London; however, research, trials and deployment should involve collaboration and learning with other cities to foster co-learning and advance shared national goals.
  6. Employ an adaptive governance model. An adaptive approach should be taken to allow city services to evolve and capitalise on the opportunities that the urban airspace presents and limit possible problems. Early decisions should therefore be made with an open, flexible approach to emerging technologies that creates capacity to evolve policy as the technology matures.

What could drones do in London?

Support emergency services and infrastructure - without losing sight of innovative new uses

The high number of people on the ground and intensity of activity in London is likely to create much higher demand for the use of the airspace and the need to make decisions about what uses to prioritise, so London’s urban airspace should be seen as a valuable asset with limited capacity. Careful thought should be given to its use.

To get the most benefit from the airspace, drone use in London should be focused on high-need uses that bring societal benefit, based on public need rather than commercial opportunity. Decision-making should be guided with respect to safety, privacy, security, need, transparency, openness and accountability along with the above principles. Our initial work suggests that the following applications may be appropriate for London.

Saving lives with the fire, ambulance and police services

The emergency services’ use of drones should be supported

By far the greatest public benefit of drones is the way that they can support the emergency services. In the short-term drones can help with search and rescue, surveying incident and crime scenes and supporting the Fire Brigade in investigating burning buildings. These uses can ultimately save people’s lives and London’s emergency services are already trialling such use cases. This work should continue and be supported at a strategic and local level. Regulation and airspace management should continue to support and enable these use cases.

Support London’s growth and the safe management of its built environment

London’s built environment is changing: drones can help it happen safely

London’s population is forecast to grow from nine million people today to 10.8 million by 2041. This means an additional 1.8 million people will need places to live and work and the infrastructure to get around. London’s built environment and transport network is already being developed, redeveloped and intensified to adapt to meet these demands. This growth must be underpinned by the principles of good growth and the Healthy Streets Approach. Its construction and management must be safe, cost-effective and reduce its environmental impact. The pace of change in London, at a city and local level, requires dynamic governance models and policies that can support effective, efficient and safe construction and maintenance of homes, workplaces and infrastructure.

Drones are uniquely able to perform difficult and dangerous tasks accurately and safely in rapidly changing environments. These include inspection and monitoring of buildings and construction sites, infrastructure and transport networks, supporting planning and development processes and even performing building-related tasks. These uses are already in practice, but they can be better routinised and proactively delivered in an intentional way to support London’s growth and regeneration in safer, more cost-effective and more time-efficient ways, thereby offering public benefits and improving local quality of life. The technology for these uses is already mature and can be deployed at scale today, but requires public sector intervention to set policy and ensure safety, privacy and security.

Drones can bring innovation and efficiency to public services in the capital

Services are facing challenges; drones could help us meet them

With an increasing population, London’s essential services will need to work harder, faster and reduce costs. This should be achieved in a way that supports the healthy streets approach and reduces environmental impact despite high levels of congestion throughout London. London needs innovative solutions to transport challenges to create greater efficiencies in transport, reduce emissions, improve the urban experience on the ground, and support good growth, including healthy, inclusive, resilient development.

In the long term, drone technology could enable new modes of zero-emission mobility with enhanced reliability and reduced travel times for critical journeys. Focused on London’s essential services, the technology could reduce costs, save lives and enhance the quality of service. Given London’s limited airspace capacity, these mobility opportunities should be focused on ‘missions’ that provide direct public benefit and only once they are fully proven to be safe. The earliest opportunities are likely to be focused on carrying time-critical items between hospitals for the NHS (further details on these possibilities and their implications are discussed in the Flying High use case analysis). Future possibilities are less certain.

London’s public sector should take steps to prepare for the most positive applications of these technologies, for example exploring how the airspace can be ‘safeguarded’ for the most publicly beneficial uses, even if the technologies are not yet ready for deployment in London.

Shape transformative new uses as they evolve

London should stay at the forefront of sensible innovation

The recent growth in the drone industry has created significant hype and excitement. Many promoters of new applications and products will look to London to endorse and embrace their proposals. This could result in pressure to use London’s airspace for applications less aligned with London’s objectives and with less publically beneficial outcomes. Many of these applications may be hailed as transformational, with the potential to change the way that Londoners perceive the benefits of the technology and London’s policy approach.

In a location where the stakes of safety and security are so high, it will be essential that London sees through this hype and recognises the many technological, regulatory and public acceptance hurdles to be addressed if the applications are to be realised. London should therefore focus on the priority applications outlined above, but also seek to shape certain technologies and business models that may initially seem less aligned with current policy. It should also use its past experience to offer guidance on business models and technologies, highlighting how services can be made more or less workable and appropriate in a dense megacity like London. Policy 23 in the MTS, which directs the Mayor and TfL “to explore, influence and manage new transport services in London so that they support the Healthy Streets Approach,” is an excellent starting point for this process, and will enable London to stay at the forefront of sensible innovation and appropriate urban drone use.

London’s role in trialling and demonstrating urban use cases

London should set the aspirations and parameters to demonstrate mature technologies in complex urban environments

London’s ability to convene industry leaders, attract capital investment and access world leading universities give it a clear role to play in the research and development process. This opportunity should support UK-wide R&D opportunities in drone technologies and put the UK drone industry on the world stage. However, due to its complexity and density, London should not be the first place to trial or pilot disruptive, high-risk technologies and applications. Rather, London should set the challenges and parameters to which the scaled deployment of an application should adhere, followed by mature trials and demonstrations once they have been proven in more controlled environments. Such trials are likely to focus on testing the response of drone systems in urban environments. Demonstrations would be focused on generating feedback from public and other stakeholders.

London has potential to create demonstration sites and urban testbeds for drone development once this maturity has been reached. Policy 4.10 of the London Plan (New and Emerging Economic Sectors) calls on the Mayor, boroughs and other relevant agencies and stakeholders to “support innovation and research, including strong promotion of London as a research location and encourage the application of the products of research in the capital’s economic development”. For drones, these opportunities should focus on relatively mature technologies for demonstrations of new applications, identifying the public viewpoint and creating place-specific pilots.

London should explore locations where open spaces, ownership, diversity of uses and landscapes are suitable for demonstrating drone applications and testing certain capabilities in an urban setting. Opportunities for synergies with existing test sites should also be sought. For example the Smart Mobility Living Lab: London has been established to provide a real-world urban testbed in a complex public environment, with a mission focused on connected and autonomous vehicles and mobility services. The current SMLL:L testbed covers the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park and parts of Greenwich. London could build on the existing smart mobility trials in these locations to develop testbeds for drone technologies and applications.

Recommended next steps for London

Keep the momentum up: develop policy, engage the public and work with industry

Over the coming year, London and its strategic partners should identify and assemble resources to further investigate and address the opportunities outlined in this vision, using the following outline of near-term actions as a roadmap:

  1. Appoint a steering group, including TfL, GLA, boroughs and national stakeholders, focused on shaping London’s approach to drones, including drone policy and regulations, in the interest of Londoners.
  2. Explore opportunities to engage the public and identify what is acceptable and supported by Londoners.
  3. Develop and define principles for the use of London’s urban airspace and how it should be managed, and take steps to develop policy and lobby national, European and international bodies to enable this approach.
  4. Explore drone applications that provide safety, societal and other public benefits and consider how these can be brought forward appropriately.
  5. Engage industry and facilitate opportunities for the development and deployment of drone technologies to support delivery of London’s strategic objectives.