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Cities have identified many potential benefits - and risks

Flying High: The future of drone technology in UK cities

Illustration by ILYA

Future city trends

Cities see opportunities for drones - but they need to respond to citizens’ needs

Drones can carry out useful tasks in cities. They can serve as eyes in the sky to look at things and report back to people on the ground, telling us quickly if a bridge is crumbling, a fire is spreading or a person needs help. They can supplement our transport systems by moving things around or getting someone somewhere quickly. Drones can also be robots on wings, performing tasks like repairing that crumbling bridge or putting out that fire.

Our work with five cities in the UK to evaluate these opportunities comes at the intersection of several major urban trends. First, in the UK and in other places, cities are taking on more leadership and responsibility than ever since the rise of the nation state. Second, cities have access to an array of technologies that help them make smarter decisions and serve the public more efficiently.

But cities are pragmatic. Every day, they are faced with making choices about how to spend (limited) money, how to best serve citizens’ needs and how to solve mundane but important problems while making plans for the future.

The Flying High project reflects these trends. Cities are excited about the possibilities that drones can bring. But cities are wary of tech-led buzz that can gloss over concerns of privacy and safety and nuisance. Cities want to seize the opportunity presented by drones but do it in a way that responds to what their citizens need and want.

The Flying High partner cities saw many of the same benefits

Saving money, improving health and safety, protecting the environment, delivering growth

The benefits outlined through the engagement with the five Flying High partner cities can be grouped into the following four high-level categories:

  1. Cost and time savings to public bodies such as local government, emergency services and health service providers, through faster access to locations, more efficient service provision and the automation of certain processes, as well as by collecting information and generating relevant data to support more timely, transparent, and effective decision-making.
  2. Health and safety benefits to workers who are taken out of hazardous and challenging environments such as working at height or in confined, compromised or unstable places; also to citizens that benefit from efficiencies that could be generated by emergency and health services.
  3. Environmental benefits from use of drones to maintain urban spaces, monitor and ensure compliance with air pollution regulation, and track changes in the environment, to reducing road traffic by replacing road vehicles with airborne drones for some types of delivery.
  4. Economic growth through efficiency gains to businesses and workers, and the creation and delivery of new skills, jobs, products and services.

As the technology, regulation and use of drones evolves it is possible that further benefits will be realised as new and previously unforeseen drone-based products and services are created.

The Flying High partner cities also had many of the same concerns

Safety, privacy and security are among the crucial things we must get right

The Flying High partner cities raised similar concerns with regards to the use of drones in their region; these included:

  1. Safety of the drones flying above or around people and buildings, as well as drones landing in and taking off from populated environments, especially if operating autonomously and/or beyond visual line of sight.
  2. Privacy of any personal data being collected and processed by the drones, ownership of the data, how and where it’s going to be used and for what purpose.
  3. Security of the drones both in terms of software and hardware to prevent hacking or malfunctions.
  4. Noise and visual pollution as a result of drone operations scaling up or carrying out tasks across cities.
  5. Transparency over what the drone is doing and who it belongs to.
  6. Impact on existing jobs and the extent to which drones are actually providing value; how will drones affect employment, public services budgets and the way current jobs are being performed.

The Flying High project represents an opportunity for drone developers, operators, regulators, cities and their representatives to address these concerns early on and design drone systems that are in line with city priorities and principles.

Cities are excited about the possibilities that drones can bring. But cities are wary of tech-led buzz that can gloss over concerns of privacy and safety and nuisance.

What tasks could drones carry out?

Proposed uses for drones fall into five broad categories

A range of drone use cases have been identified by city stakeholders as having the potential to bring these benefits to UK cities in the next 20 years. These are grouped below according to the main functionality of the drones.

  1. Monitoring – continuous scanning or assessment of defined areas looking for live changes.
    Using drones to monitor air or water pollution in a more consistent way, mapping fires and floods, monitoring traffic flows on roads or shipping lanes, monitoring crowds at events, and supporting search and rescue missions were frequently mentioned by city stakeholders. The added value of drones in these situations is that they can offer new and timely data that can support decision-making and lead to more effective policies or interventions. Some of these use cases such as mapping fires or monitoring crowds at events are in operation today, but in discrete locations. Their potential is much greater.

    For example, in cases of emergency, drones could become an integral part of emergency service operations. They could support a better coordination by collecting data and sharing it across the police, emergency, and fire services. Speaking optimistically, in the future drones will be able to not only respond in emergencies, but could also predict or even prevent them, such as in the case of fires. Similarly, in the case of monitoring traffic flows, data from drones could be used to predict peak times and better manage traffic.

  2. Inspection – assessing discrete objects, areas or systems to evaluate their current state.
    The inspection of assets – whether discrete objects such as bridges, houses, construction sites, tall buildings, or confined and compromised structures, or linear systems such as railway tracks, pipes, roads, power lines or sewers – were common desired applications mentioned by city stakeholders. The advantages of using drones in these situations include time and cost reductions of carrying out the assessment, as well as risk reduction for personnel working in hazardous environments (e.g. at height or in compromised spaces).

    Drones would also offer the opportunity to inspect confined or otherwise inaccessible areas. Similar to monitoring, the value of using drones in inspections lies in their ability to detect potentially dangerous faults and enable their timely, and more affordable, reparation. Drones used for monitoring and inspection could also play a key role in city development and planning; they can provide more complex and comprehensive data to inform development plans, as well as make it easier to share progress with residents. This would lead to better informed and much more transparent public services.

  3. Delivery of goods – collecting, transporting, and delivering goods from origin to destination.
    A lot of public attention has focused on the drone delivery of commercial goods – collecting, transporting and delivering goods from retailers to homes or between intermediary hubs. The city stakeholders consulted for the Flying High project mainly expressed an interest in situations where drones would be used to perform regular and/or unpredictable deliveries of critical items. This included urgent deliveries of medical samples or drugs between hospitals, or deliveries between a hub and variable emergency locations – for example, sending a defibrillator to the site of an accident or essential supplies to flood victims. If used to complement emergency services, drones could enable a faster and more targeted delivery of emergency supplies and more consistent services.

    Beyond emergency services, delivery drones were seen as a way of improving the accessibility of different services and enabling the development of more inclusive communities. For example, drones could be used to deliver medical prescriptions or local produce to vulnerable people or to those in remote locations. The development of a drone delivery infrastructure could lead to reduced road traffic congestion and pollution in city centres, and faster and more consistent services for remote users.

  4. Transport of people – transporting passengers from one location to another.
    Some people and companies have discussed the use of drones to carry people, for instance in an urban taxi service. This was raised by city stakeholders, but as a longer-term possibility rather than a priority use case. Use for emergency services, for instance as air ambulances, is more likely to be a nearer-term goal. Ambitions of using people-carrying drones on a large scale to decongest road traffic and reduce strain on existing public transport is a much longer-term aspiration, and one that would require much stronger public and political support than is currently evident.

  5. Intervention – interact with objects or persons in an attempt to improve or support their current state.
    In addition to collecting data, delivering goods and transporting people, several other drone applications were flagged up by city stakeholders. These included drones that could pick up litter, spray weeds, repair roads, street lamps or faults in hard-to-reach structures such as bridges, they could boost mobile networks at events or in emergencies or could rescue people in danger. This versatility of these applications supports a vision where drones would seamlessly integrate into the day-to-day operations of a city and its emergency services. They would enable an extension and improvement of existing services and capabilities, as well as allow for a greater flexibility of carrying out tasks in confined or dangerous locations.

Grouping drone use cases into categories based on their functionality can be a helpful way to consider the common technical and infrastructure requirements needed to enable their effective operation in an urban setting.

In reality, it is most likely that drones will carry out multiple and diverse tasks as part of an end-to-end service. In the engagement with city stakeholders, an emerging expectation was that drones would be used across multiple services, they will likely be modular, and could perform a range of complementary tasks.

For example, emergency drones will likely be used across the emergency services, and will support a range of capabilities including monitoring, inspection, sharing important and timely data, delivery of critical equipment and even transport of people in need of immediate attention. Another emerging feature was that drone operations will likely become increasingly proactive and focus on prediction and prevention, not just rapid response. Using drones to identify and prioritise maintenance operations in a city or to build better models of how people and vehicles move in a city can support the development of more proactive, effective and transparent public services in urban settings.