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A vision for how the West Midlands could use drone technology

West Midlands' vision for urban drone technology

Photo: Jason Andrews

Why we are talking about the future of drones in the West Midlands?

The West Midlands region has long been one of the UK’s leading economic centres

One of the main economic powerhouses in the UK, the West Midlands is home to 2.8 million residents, international corporations and an expanding community of small-and-medium sized enterprises. It is the largest urban area outside London and is geographically diverse, with Birmingham city centre at its heart and the cities of Coventry and Wolverhampton well placed to build upon the region’s significant potential. In the 18th century, the Black Country districts of Dudley, Sandwell, Walsall and Wolverhampton supplied the coal which fuelled Victorian factories, and in the next few years Coventry will house the nation’s new battery research facility.

The West Midlands has built upon its proud heritage as the historic birthplace of the Industrial Revolution, and has retained its strengths in advanced manufacturing and engineering. The region continues to be recognised as ‘the UK’s automotive heartland’, thanks to its concentration of research and development assets in that sector, and is set to become a world-leading testbed for connected and autonomous vehicles (CAVs).

A recent report by the World Economic Forum identified a ‘fourth’, contemporary industrial revolution. It highlighted drones, alongside autonomous vehicles, as a distinctive and vital technology in this shift. Given the region’s heritage, geographic advantage and economic strength, the West Midlands is well positioned to be at the forefront of this, shaping drone usage and building the drone development ecosystem in the UK.

Transport innovation lies at the heart of the region’s strategy

New infrastructure and advanced technology are key

A culture of innovation continues to be a key driver for future progress in the West Midlands, demonstrated by the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA)’s recognition of smart mobility as the ‘glue’ behind its transport strategy. Successes in this field include the region’s recent launch of the UK’s first ‘Mobility as a Service’ package, and the successful bid to build a £25 million real-road CAV test environment. The region’s eagerness to identify and test new forms of transport technology to drive regional growth speaks to the viability of exploring drones in its urban centres.

Alongside these proof-of-concept trials, major infrastructure projects promise to transform the skyline and offering of the West Midlands. The largest infrastructure project in Europe, High Speed Two, is coming soon and will connect Birmingham to London, Manchester and Leeds by rail. Other connectivity projects within the West Midlands, from metro expansion to a network resilience programme, will also help in linking people to employment and boosting economic growth. This combination of innovation, investment and transformation presents unique opportunities to explore transformative technologies.

The establishment of the West Midlands Combined Authority brings new leadership to the region

The region now has the institutions it needs

The West Midlands was a pioneering region in the launch of the UK’s metro mayor concept and move towards devolution of power from Westminster to the local level. The region can seize this opportunity to develop local leadership around issues of regional importance – including the future of urban drone operations.

Established in 2016, the WMCA consists of the seven existing metropolitan councils and three local enterprise partnerships which make up the region. The organisation was created to secure and manage investment and set the direction for regional strategy. Headed by the elected metro mayor, Andy Street, the WMCA has responsibility for regional economic growth, transport, housing, skills and jobs. At its heart, the organisation aims to use the devolved powers to deliver a stronger West Midlands, accelerating regional productivity and improving the quality of life for those living or working in the region.

In addition to these formal governance structures, regional development is led by the West Midlands’ ethos of collaboration and enterprise. Not only do local authorities work in partnership with each other, but a positive approach to public sector reform has seen councils work with charities, universities, hospitals and the emergency services. Likewise, engagement with business spans beyond the WMCA’s connections to local enterprise partnerships. The contribution that the private sector makes to the region is valued, with some commercial partners directly involved with WMCA projects and others working independently on initiatives which enhance the West Midlands.

The West Midlands was a pioneering region in the launch of the UK’s metro mayor concept and move towards devolution of power from Westminster.

What should guide drone policy development in the West Midlands?

West Midlands Flying High

Excitement must be balanced with care

Drones are a disruptive technology with the potential to bring significant change as well as benefit to the West Midlands. While this is exciting, it needs a considered approach to guide future deployment of drones in order to ensure that opportunities are exploited and potential issues avoided. Initial engagement with public services, business, academia and elected members has captured early views on which principles should characterise the region’s approach to drones. These ideas will be further supported by a policy-led approach to ensure that trials and initiatives align with regional ambitions.

A set of guiding principles should be developed as a foundation for any future public decision-making or policy development governing drone use in the West Midlands. Within the stakeholder engagement process for the Flying High project, the following themes emerged to form the basis of these as important guiding principles for a future drone policy.

West Midlands’ framework for disruptive technologies

The West Midlands already have a framework for innovative transport technologies - the introduction of drones should follow it

Transport for West Midlands (TfWM), as part of the WMCA, works to identify whether new and emerging mobility solutions could help meet the rising and evolving demands placed on the region’s networks. Often, these solutions come in the form of disruptive technologies, such as smart ticketing, on-demand services and mobility apps, such as Whim. Many of these initiatives are collaborative, where TfWM enables a range of partners to launch or trial new services. This requires the organisation to simultaneously empower projects and guide them so that they meet the region’s best interests. Drones, along with other autonomous systems, fall firmly within this category.

To achieve the balance between innovation and added value, TfWM has developed a set of core regional policies which new initiatives in disruptive technologies must look to improve, or not adversely affect. These policies reflect the strategic priorities for the region, from social wellbeing to sustainable growth. For example, the traffic incident response use case analysis set out in this publication has the potential to benefit policies 2, 3 and 12, which focus on using and maintaining existing transport capacity more effectively to provide greater resilience and greater reliability for the movement of people and goods, and reducing road traffic casualty numbers and severity.

Development and uptake of drones could also stimulate economic growth more broadly, consistent with the framework’s policies to support economic growth and economic inclusion, whereas the environmental impact of increased drone use would need to be understood and monitored, consistent with policies 9 and 10. Overall, these policies act as a light touch framework to quickly assess and then guide trials of disruptive technologies without stifling innovation. Alongside principles identified by stakeholders, these policies will shape the development of drone initiatives in the West Midlands.

Recommended principles to guide future drone development in the West Midlands

Drone development in the West Midlands should support growth, encourage interoperability and add value

  1. Create a growth environment. Continue to act as an enabler of innovation, looking for opportunities where drones could support regional priorities and boost key sectors such as advanced manufacturing, but also creating an environment in which enterprise can flourish.
  2. Encourage interoperability. Encourage the ambitious development of interoperable and modular drone systems, which can offer multiple uses and be shared among users and sectors.
  3. Add value. Prioritise drone applications which truly add value to the West Midlands, creating alignment between community and commercial interests. This principle was the most important to elected members, and will be central to future public engagement efforts.

What could drones do in the West Midlands?

The West Midlands vision for drones focuses on public benefit: infrastructure and development, transport and logistics and emergency services

A wide network of expert and local stakeholders from the public, commercial and academic sectors were asked what they think drones could or should be able to do in the West Midlands. Through the engagement process, the following functions for drones emerged as regional priorities for the future:

  • Infrastructure and development
    • Asset monitoring and maintenance
    • Surveying
    • Land use monitoring
    • Supporting construction projects
  • Transport and logistics
    • Monitoring transport conditions
    • Managing congestion and mobility
    • Last mile delivery
    • Product movement
  • Emergency services
    • Traffic incident response
    • Emergency response: Police, Fire, Ambulance
    • Policing: crowd monitoring, missing people, crime
    • Medical transport

The West Midlands is poised to utilise urban drone operations to boost regional economic growth in three ways: application-based economic growth, broader industry involvement and testbed opportunities.

Application-based economic growth

Continue to work as an enabler in the region, through creating an environment which encourages the uptake of drones to perform specific services which could add value to the West Midlands

Pursuing ways to enable the wider adoption of drones for infrastructure and development would support the West Midlands in its ambition to bring forward new land for housing, jobs and economic development. Some commercial companies already use drones within these sectors, from monitoring rail lines to surveying construction sites, and demand for these applications is growing. Within an urban environment, drones can be used to enable more effective and sustainable construction, bringing efficiency to processes and providing a greater level of real-time high-accuracy data on which to make decisions. Therefore unlocking more urban sites for the use of this technology could therefore have a tangible impact on the shape of the West Midlands.

Within a future transport system, drones could respond to traffic incidents, intelligently manage congestion, or even inform cars about road conditions.

Transport and logistics is another major sector in which drones could deliver economic benefit in the region at pace. Creating conditions which enable the integration of drones into freight and logistics operations could work to boost regional productivity, as warehouses become more efficient and products manufactured in the West Midlands are brought to market more quickly. Meanwhile, within a future transport system, drones could respond to traffic incidents, intelligently manage congestion, or even inform cars about road conditions. Other, perhaps more contentious, possibilities for drone use include transporting people and delivering goods. Whilst it remains to be seen if these ideas will become practical from a technological and economic standpoint in the region, they demonstrate the potential for drones to reimagine our networks.

Other applications could benefit the region’s communities more directly, such as the potential ‘blue light’ uses for drones within the emergency services. For instance, in their ongoing trial of the technology, West Midlands Police have deployed drones to prevent automobile theft and quickly locate missing people, as well as working alongside West Midlands Fire Service to provide an eye in the sky for localised flooding events. These ‘drones for good’ uses can both complement existing services and save public money, and are typically well supported by the public and elected representatives.

Broader industry development

Strategically intervene to support existing and emerging industries related to drone technology to flourish in the West Midlands, and beyond

The West Midlands has fostered a rich culture of innovation built upon growth industries and inter-sector collaboration. Through identifying and taking advantage of opportunities to test new technologies, the region can foster the necessary collaborations among industry players to deliver drone trials, projects and services. Much of this work will be focusing on creating the opportunities for existing and emerging industries to take off within the West Midlands. Initial steps towards this have been taken within the stakeholder engagement conducted by WMCA as part of the Flying High project.

However, a much broader supporting ecosystem is needed to enable the drone industry to mature, and the West Midlands’ young population and diverse economy - the region has the highest proportion of people aged 24 and under in England - offers scope to support its development. To explain, the drone ecosystem expands beyond the aviation sector to include experts in data security, communications and digital media. Regional policies, such as planned investment into skills or initiatives to retain local talent, can ensure the sustainable development of the drone sector. Public and political support for drones is another vital aspect of the ecosystem, and perhaps more challenging to secure.

Demonstration and testbed opportunities

West Midlands Flying High Map

The West Midlands should leverage its position as a future testbed for mobility technologies to explore the potential for drones in UK cities

The opening of Midlands Future Mobility in 2020/21 will establish the West Midlands as a world-leading test environment for future technologies. The multi-million pound government investment, matched by private sector funding, will deliver a testbed for CAVs across more than 50 kilometres of open public roads. The route spans the strategic A45 route which connects Coventry and Birmingham cities, passing Birmingham International Airport at Solihull. It will reach into city centre routes and, going forward, may take advantage of the high speed routes or M40 / M42 smart motorway junction which were covered by the UK CITE connected vehicle project. The diversity of the test environments roads will be matched in its versatile offer for trialling technologies. Although designed with CAVs in mind, Midlands Future Mobility looks to explore the wider transport ecosystem, including road side units, communications infrastructure and, potentially, drones.

Midlands Future Mobility will provide the best-of-both in offering a controlled yet real-world test environment for disruptive technologies. The facility will be able to bridge the gap between simulation and service deployment, granting autonomous technologies the scope in which to build their safety cases. For drones, this could enable multiple proof-of-concept trials to be conducted in closer proximity to highways than would otherwise be permitted. The strong 4G coverage across Midlands Future Mobility, as well as the potential for 5G capability in selected areas, will further guarantee the low latency communications needed for drone technology to securely advance. This is particularly noteworthy as the testbed’s strategic route also aligns with the area researched for the Flying High study of the traffic incident response use case. Finally, as a future melting pot for advanced manufacturers, communications specialists and enterprise, Midlands Future Mobility could offer drone systems a nurturing, as well as technologically-equipped, space in which to develop.

Recommended next steps for the West Midlands

3.4 Southampton-Isle of Wight medical deliveryBe proactive, explore opportunities for collaboration and have a meaningful conversation with the public

Over the coming year, the coalition of partners coordinated by the WMCA to address the future of drones in the region should explore opportunities in these three areas:

  1. Enable new initiatives which have the potential to contribute to regional ambitions. Although the future of national drone policy and regulation remains ambiguous, it is clear that the region stands to benefit from a proactive approach to drones. Referring to core regional policies as a framework to shape future drone activity will help realise the necessary balance between enabling innovation and ensuring added benefit.
  2. Explore opportunities for collaboration among commercial, public sector and academic partners. Expertise in drone technology sits with commercial and academic partners, and it is probable that many urban drone operations will not be owned or run by local authorities. This means that early cross-sector engagement and collaboration will be vital to securing stakeholder buy-in to a community-first regional policy. Such partnership is also essential in unlocking investment opportunities.
  3. Seek to better assess the public viewpoint. Ensuring public and political engagement will be a priority going forward. Meaningful, two-way conversations are needed, in which policy makers solicit the views of their communities and work to develop a shared, accurate understanding of what drones mean to the West Midlands.