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A vision for how Southampton could use drone technology

Southampton's vision for urban drone technology

Photo: Jason Andrews

Why we are talking about the future of drones in Southampton

Southampton is a leader in aerospace and a coastal transport hub

A city with a population of a quarter of a million residents, Southampton anchors the larger coastal region including Portsmouth and the Isle of Wight. The Southampton economy alone represents a GVA of £6.15 billion, with the wider Solent economy valued at £27.8 billion GVA. Southampton’s economy relies on strong clusters in maritime, aerospace and business and financial services. Its geographic position offers strategic importance as a gateway economy, providing connectivity for the UK to global markets.

Southampton is the UK’s south coastal travel hub; nearly two million passengers passed through the airport in 2016, while the Port of Southampton received the largest number of passenger vessels in the UK in 2016, is the UK’s second-largest container terminal and is one of the top exporting ports for vehicles.The port handles 14 million tonnes of cargo each year, supports 15,000 jobs and contributes around £1 billion to the UK economy.

Southampton aims to position itself as an important hub of the UK drone industry

The Hampshire aerospace cluster is key for the local economy

In the coming decades, drone technology could play an important part in transport systems in Southampton and an even bigger role in the growth of Southampton’s economy. With the support of a coalition built by the Southampton City Council, the University of Southampton and other academic, public sector and industry partners, Southampton is positioned to grow as an important hub in the UK drone industry.

Southampton contributes to the larger Hampshire aerospace and defence cluster which supports over 18,000 jobs in the local economy. In the Solent region, which includes Southampton, seven of the world’s ten largest aerospace companies are based. Increased R&D investment in the drone sector and related enabling technologies could further grow this cluster and position Southampton as a primary hub of the UK drone industry.

Southampton seeks to increase the number of business start-ups, create more high-paying jobs, grow the technology sector and increase opportunities for STEM employment locally. By drawing on its existing industrial strengths and research institutions, the city intends to carve out a niche in the drone sector, create training opportunities, retain the skills and knowledge developed in the robotics, AI and aviation industries, and grow the regional economy, with a focus on the R&D opportunities around the knowledge, design and production of high-value parts.

The University of Southampton has over 500 staff across five departments conducting aerospace research. It was the first university to offer a postgraduate course in the design of unmanned autonomous vehicles; its Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) research team has been involved in pioneering projects such as developing the first 3D printed UAV and the first low-cost maritime surveillance UAV. The university is also the lead researcher behind CASCADE (Complex Autonomous aircraft Systems Configuration, Analysis and Design Exploratory), a five-year project bringing together business, government and academic partners, funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council. CASCADE launched this year to research and address current constraints on UAV operations.

Both the University of Southampton and the University of Portsmouth have close working links with top global aerospace companies including Airbus, Rolls-Royce, and Boeing. The University of Southampton is the sole UK partner to help operate the US National Centre of Excellence for Unmanned Aircraft Systems, which will work towards addressing challenges and opportunities in drone technology.

Southampton is also home to several testbeds for autonomous technologies. In 2017, the Solent Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) and partner organisations invested £1.5 million in the design and development of the UK’s first dedicated marine and maritime autonomy testbed. Its aim is to enable the testing, teaching and development of specialist autonomous systems such as unmanned boats, air vehicles and autonomous sensors in a safe, controlled, and realistic environment in the Solent. The ambition of the project is to attract further international investment, build innovation skills, support world class research on autonomy, and generate new jobs in the region as the Solent becomes a centre for maritime autonomy.

Southampton City Council is also exploring smart cities and the application of technology to reduce transport delays and promote a more efficient, better connected city. One of three long-term goals contained in the draft local transport plan is 'Successful Southampton', which states, “New disruptive technologies have the potential to completely change how people travel,” and that “drones and new innovations could help reduce the cost of maintaining and operating the road network and improve efficiency of busy traffic junctions.”

Southampton should take the lead in airspace management

Southampton aims to become the first city in the UK to host a complex unmanned traffic management system to enable complex drone usage

Southampton is a hub of autonomous systems R&D, across land, air and sea. This includes one of the world’s leading autonomous systems research groups at the University of Southampton, the Marine Robotics Innovation Centre at the National Oceanography Centre and a number of private sector companies based in the region. Southampton is also the location of the headquarters of NATS, the UK’s main air navigation service provider. This local expertise makes the region well suited as a testbed for advancing unmanned and autonomous systems deployment. A key step in enabling this is the development of an unmanned traffic management (UTM) system. A UTM is generally conceived of as a system of systems or a set of interoperable, evolutionary services that enable high volume and complex autonomous operations. These systems can unlock applications of drones that can go beyond current restrictions relating to line of sight of the operator, autonomy and operations in congested areas or around airfields.

Southampton aims to be a national lead in trialing advanced UTM solutions in a complex urban environment, encompassing drones, autonomous maritime applications and connected and autonomous land vehicles.

Basic UTM systems already exist for drones, generally in the form of flight logging and tracking systems, but this is limited, and a standardised, unified system across land, air and sea has not yet been tested in the real world. Southampton aims to be a national lead in trialing advanced UTM solutions in a complex urban environment, encompassing drones, autonomous maritime applications and connected and autonomous land vehicles. Southampton aspires to have the first mature UTM system in the UK operating across the wider region, including Southampton Airport, the Isle of Wight, Portsmouth and Bournemouth.

Local partners, including the University of Southampton and local drone industry leaders, envisage moving quickly to work with regulators and policymakers to pioneer a UK UTM system. Existing drone use experience at the port, the airport and in support of the Hampshire Constabulary provide the core competency platform upon which to build a case. A Southampton area UTM, under CAA approved management, would ensure safety and appropriate interfaces and seek to enable the roll-out of use cases that serve the collective public service ambitions as well as commercial activity.

What should guide drone policy development in Southampton?

Southampton Flying High

Drones must add value and be introduced in a responsible way

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 Southampton.

Recommended principles to guide future drone development in Southampton

Drone development in Southampton should mitigate the negatives and make the most of what drones can do

  1. Focus on drone applications that add value, rather than duplicate services. Any policy or investment committed by Southampton around drone use should capitalise on the unique capabilities of drones to perform tasks that cannot otherwise be done as safely, efficiently or as cost-effectively. In particular, Southampton City Council, Hampshire Constabulary and other appropriate parties should collaborate to establish a joint understanding of the safety opportunities and public interest. Delivery, as an example, for last-mile distributions should be considered only if it is an effective alternative in terms of economic and societal benefit. In addition, Southampton will work to extend beneficial drone use within the confines of private commercial premises such as Associated British Ports dockside estate and Southampton Airport.
  2. Protect the public realm. Drone support infrastructure should be designed in ways that complement high-quality urban design and planning principles. Southampton should assess the infrastructure opportunities and set parameters for where and how drones should fit in with the existing urban and suburban landscape, and where they should be prohibited. City planners should engage with the Southampton People’s Panel to assess the public viewpoint and ensure any increased drone usage responds to the public’s input.
  3. Mitigate environmental impact. The port, airport and road network already bear environmental concern for Southampton residents. A 2014 survey of residents’ views on air quality found that 36 percent felt that air quality in the city was a “significant issue”, while only seven percent felt it was not an issue. Future policy around drone use will need to ensure that drones do not exacerbate noise and air pollution concerns in the Southampton region. Flight routes need to be considered carefully to ensure that they do not impact negatively on residential areas. Technological innovations should prioritise extending battery life to minimise the risk of air pollution, as well as making more efficient and quieter propellers to minimise noise pollution.
  4. Safeguard privacy and data. As the technology progresses, drone use will likely become more frequent and use cases will become more varied. Relevant policies and procedures must be established to protect the privacy and security of data. Operators should provide transparency as to what data drones are collecting, how the data is going to be processed and stored, who will have access to it and how it’s going to be used.

What could drones do in Southampton?

Help with medical delivery and emergency services, traffic management, port growth and regional connectivity

Drones are already in use by the Hampshire Constabulary to aid in emergencies, to monitor construction sites by companies such as Balfour Beatty, and by Southampton Airport for runway inspections and bird control. However, Southampton recognises there is an untapped opportunity to utilise drones to support public services more widely and create efficiencies in business operations.

Time-sensitive medical delivery

Connect Southampton General Hospital and others in the Solent regions

The city and the main medical institutions in the region seek to investigate the use of drones to transport urgent blood, plasma, medicines and other medical supplies, providing greater connectivity among Southampton General Hospital and others in the Solent regions and northwards towards Winchester. Preliminary analysis suggests there are both demand and evident cost savings from pursuing this course, as further detailed in the Flying High use case analysis.

Support the growth of the port

Use drones to perform monitoring and inspection, then piloting and mooring, tasks

Southampton stakeholders see an opportunity in using drones to improve port operations in the near term by performing monitoring and inspecting tasks to assess infrastructure and manage traffic, monitor air and water quality, and provide security. More longer term aspirations include using drones to assist with piloting and mooring operations, support goods transport and provide vessel control. This represents a unique opportunity to both capitalise on drones’ specific attributes, and to link aerial robotics with connected and autonomous vehicle systems and autonomous maritime systems.

More longer term aspirations include using drones to assist with piloting and mooring operations, support goods transport and provide vessel control.

Traffic management

Provide real-time traffic monitoring as Southampton's roads get busier

Congestion in Southampton has a detrimental impact on air quality, social mobility and the local economy. Southampton City Council expects a population increase of over 13 percent in the next 20 years, meaning traffic congestion will only worsen unless interventions are made. Drones offer a flexible and agile method of collecting data, and can also be used to track traffic flow real-time responding to local conditions at the time. In the near term, drones can assist with monitoring conditions, collecting transport data to assist with real-time traffic management and longer term planning initiatives. In the future, drones could play a key role in an integrated traffic management system that encompasses aerial transport, connected and autonomous vehicles on the ground, autonomous freight systems and smart city infrastructure.

Emergency services

Augment the emergency services' road vehicles and helicopters

Drones can offer essential capabilities to create greater efficiencies in supporting emergency services, by using drones to monitor crowd dynamics, recover evidence, and deploy drones as initial eyes on the scene in advance of deploying emergency services for incident response. Drone technology may also be valuable in border and maritime security to augment and extend policing capabilities that might otherwise rely upon road vehicles or helicopters.

Solent connectivity

Go beyond medical delivery when connecting the region with drones

The Solent maritime geography presents particular connectivity problems. The city intends to explore how drone technology can provide services to locations such as the Isle of Wight (beyond the planned medical trials goal) and to the Fawley Waterside development in order to improve the level of connectedness of these locations with hubs in the region and to open up new services that will generate economic value for the region.

Demonstration and testbed opportunities

Southampton Flying High Map

Southampton should look at demonstration and testbed opportunities for medical deliveries to the Isle of Wight, rapid movement of goods around the Solent area, and as part of the Fawley Waterwise development

The transportation of goods from Southampton to the Isle of Wight is currently made by scheduled ferry journeys. The use of drone technology to transport small, light goods frequently in emergency situations could offer an efficient and flexible alternative form of transport. Due to budget constraints, currently patients are transported to the mainland to receive non-urgent NHS services. Drone transportation could offer a cost-efficient courier service of medical supplies such as blood, medicine and medical equipment to these locations. The journey between the Isle of Wight and the mainland is challenging due to the transit over sea and withstanding varied weather conditions. With the future advancement of regulation and technology created to overcome these obstacles, the route could be used as a testbed to trial other forms of delivery (see the Flying High use case analysis for further details).

Beyond the applications envisaged under the Isle of Wight connectivity medical use case, there is potential to explore how drones can support rapid movement of goods within the Solent area. The Solent LEP has supported a BAE Systems-led autonomous systems test centre that serves both commercial and military uses and draws together a number of companies and academic institutions. Trials and tests could be conducted on systems such as air vehicles and autonomous sensors in a safe, controlled and realistic environment in the Solent. This is backed by a rigorous safety case analysis and access to secure communication systems and control centres. Additionally, the extensive research and development test and trials capabilities of the University of Southampton, the National Oceanographic Centre and of companies domiciled in the Solent area provide a viable environment in which to explore drone technology.

Another ambitious project on the outskirts of Southampton aims to transform the site of the former Fawley power station - Hampshire’s most extensive brownfield site - into Fawley Waterside, the first town-scale smart city in either Europe or America. Bringing together a technical group representing private sector, education and public agencies the project will look to install new technologies to enable intelligent infrastructure to support communities and businesses. This could present an exciting and unique opportunity to share insights from the Flying High project and inform the design of a city where drones are integrated into day-to-day operations and management. Fawley Waterside could also become a demonstration site to test and assess different components of a drone system. Lessons learnt from developing Fawley Waterside could be shared with Southampton and other urban centres in the UK and adapted to the challenges of larger, highly populated environments.

Recommended next steps for Southampton

Drone development in the Southampton explore how drones can help the city and support the development of the local drone economy

Over the coming year, the coalition built by the Southampton City Council, the University of Southampton and other partners should identify and assemble resources to further investigate and address the opportunities outlined in this vision, using the following set of near-term actions as a roadmap:

  1. Define the parameters, barriers and necessary interventions to lay the groundwork to develop a UTM system.
  2. Investigate opportunities to align with and inform national policies and regulations in line with local priorities regarding the smart cities agenda, including the role of drones.
  3. Collaborate with public services to identify how drones can support their services and provide greater efficiencies.
  4. Evaluate the resources needed to invest in the necessary drone support infrastructure, such as the communications systems or physical infrastructure.
  5. Create a branding strategy to position Southampton as a hub for drone research and development to attract inward investment.
  6. Support start-up businesses interested in manufacturing, operating or using drones to develop commercial or public services and provide them with the relevant resources to scale-up (e.g. access to finance, skilled employees and infrastructure).
  7. Extend dialogue with the public via the Southampton People’s Panel on the best way to roll out beneficial drone use.
  8. Work with the Solent LEP and the business community to grow the level of drone SME activity and to foster a vibrant industry community.
  9. Build upon the research and skills capabilities at the region’s educational establishments to establish a ‘go to’ training, development and support network that can add to local economic activity and further build the Solent area’s brand.