What we have found
A summary of the findings from Flying High's unique collaboration with five UK city-regions
Around the world, drone technology is developing. Services are being created and rethought thanks to the new possibilities they bring.
Drone technology is already operating in our cities today and will continue to develop with its own momentum, regardless of what the UK chooses to do.
But the UK has the choice whether it wants to lead, or whether it wants to follow. Whether it wants to shape how drones are used, or let others do the shaping.
Based on extensive discussions with cities, technologists, regulators and other stakeholders, we have come to some conclusions around the issues preventing the realisation of public benefit from the use of drones in UK cities today. For each of these conclusions, we present recommendations for issues need to be resolved and what should happen next.
The benefits of drones are recognised by cities
We have found broad enthusiasm for some uses for drones in the UK - but not for all
Our close engagement with five cities, and the competition among 15 others to participate in the Flying High project revealed a huge appetite for socially beneficial uses of drones. These are primarily uses supporting city, public and emergency services.
There was far less interest in the more commercial or speculative uses of drones, such as to carry parcels or people.
The public discussion on drones, sometimes influenced by PR for drone companies, is not sufficiently focused on these socially useful use cases. A great deal of publicity has been given to speculative use cases like flying cars and delivering online shopping. There may be a place for these in the long term, particularly to solve specific local problems (such as access to island communities), but these are a distraction from the more immediate and socially beneficial uses drones could be put to. Industry - and the public discussion on drones - should first focus on these.
The use cases we have focused on in this report - medical logistics, connecting remote communities, road and fire incident response, urban regeneration - have broad support among city stakeholders. Polling evidence suggests they do among the public too. These are the uses that represent the most beneficial opportunity for drones in the UK today.
Given this enthusiasm, the opportunity of drones is worth pushing for.
We have identified three key areas that we recommend for further action. Progress is needed on technical and regulatory feasibility, stakeholders need to be aligned and the public engaged.
What is to be done?
A framework for choosing our course of action
To understand where we currently are and where the barriers and challenges lie in relation to unlocking the opportunity of drone technology, we have worked with the Centre for Public Impact (CPI). CPI’s Public Impact Fundamentals are an evidence-based framework for assessing the likelihood of success of public policies.
The better an initiative performs against each of their nine elements, the greater the chance of the policy achieving its intended outcomes. CPI’s current assessment of drone policy in the UK is below.
Through our research and engagement over the course of the Flying High project, we have identified as three key areas that we recommend for further action: feasibility, alignment and public confidence. A consolidated effort to strengthen these elements will impact other areas and increase the likelihood of bringing about positive outcomes for citizens from this technology.
Based on this analysis, we have focused our conclusions on the three areas of public confidence, technical and regulatory feasibility, and alignment of the key stakeholders. These are areas in which there is room for further work, where a challenge-based approach would help, and which are critical to improving the likelihood of success.
Drones can only take off with the consent and confidence of the public
We found a general lack of knowledge about the potential of drones, the detail of the policy environment that governs them, and uses they can be put to among the public and also many city stakeholders. The conversation has barely started on what drones should do and how they should be governed. This has not manifested itself as widespread scepticism; it’s more that strong opinions are yet to form among people outside of the drone industry. This means that we are at a critical and formative moment in public and official perceptions of drones. The decisions we make, and the language that we use now, will have lasting repercussions.
The general public has not yet played a major role in shaping the future of drones. Their involvement, their chance to shape the emergence of the consensus, and their chance to judge with their own eyes what emerges, will be crucial. Self-reported attitudes to drones are currently not hostile, but self-reported knowledge is low. It is important not to see this as a public relations problem to be solved through messaging and targeted information. Experience of previous new technologies shows that patronising the public, seeing them simply as an audience to be informed, is not the solution. They need to be part of the same ongoing conversation.
Future development of urban applications of drones in the UK needs to be led by cities but with strong support from central government, stakeholders and regulators. Alongside this, the public need to be meaningfully involved in decision-making, because it is only with public support that drones can be used. If they are not involved, the drone industry risks a public backlash.
Where public money is invested in developing drones, it should primarily be around public service use cases.
If the UK wants to avoid falling behind, it urgently needs to make a proactive decision to lead.
Operating at scale and in complex environments is not possible with today’s technology, regulation or infrastructure
Although drone technology is developing quickly, we have identified numerous cross-cutting technical barriers to large-scale operation.
A major issue affecting all of the use cases we researched was safe operation beyond visual line of sight in complex urban environments. A related issue is how airspace will be managed in the future to avoid conflicts between different drones, and between drones and manned aircraft, when the skies above our cities get busier.
For many use cases, integrating drones into broader complex systems is a challenge. Making the most of drones in the NHS - for example - requires integration into, and rethinking of, large-scale medical logistics networks. In construction sites, drones bring the greatest benefit if they bring live information directly into building information management systems. For emergency services they would need to be integrated into planning, command and communications systems.
Drones operating at scale will likely need a more robust communications network - more bandwidth, more coverage, more redundancy - than is available at present.
And then there is a plethora of smaller, more self-contained but equally crucial technical issues that need to be resolved, such as: operating in poor weather, achieving longer endurance, developing secure systems and navigation that overcomes some of the technical limitations of GPS. These are set out in the technical chapters of this report.
Existing regulations are not suitable for much larger-scale operation.
The current system in which drone use is extremely tightly restricted by default, with exceptions granted on a case-by-case basis, works for now. However, operation at larger scale will inevitably put this under strain. Many of the default prohibitions - operations in built-up areas, near buildings and people, around airports, around secure sites like prisons - are problematic for the use cases we have identified, particularly if they are to operate at a larger scale. While the restrictions are justified for now, they might be treated in a more nuanced way once more sophisticated management of airspace is in place.
There is also currently a gap in the regulation of autonomous systems - one that also applies to autonomous vehicles. Going beyond remotely-piloted drones and on to self-piloting drones will not be possible until this is resolved.
Finally, the necessary infrastructure is not in place for large-scale operation.
Drones operating in small numbers and with blanket exclusions from flying in problematic areas (such as near airports, people or buildings), as at present, do not need significant infrastructure. They can be piloted by a single qualified individual with permission from the CAA. But at scale, different drone uses will inevitably come into conflict with each other. At present there is no drone equivalent of the air traffic control system to safely manage the airspace in our cities. On top of this, global navigation systems such as GPS are not accurate enough for some of the use cases that require highly precise flight, and communications infrastructure is often not up to scratch.
Future development of drones in the UK needs to solve all these individual technical, regulatory and infrastructure barriers. But these are not just problems in isolation: the increasingly complex environments drones will encounter as services scale up and infrastructure develops means that drones need a safe environment in which to be tested.
We therefore recommend the creation of testbeds in which drone services can be developed, with the facilities and regulatory approvals to support them.
Regulation will also need to change: routine granting of permission must be possible, blanket prohibitions in some types of airspace must be relaxed, and an automated system of permissions - linked to an unmanned traffic management system - needs to be put in place for all but the most challenging uses.
And we will need a learning system to share progress on regulation and governance of the technology, within the UK and beyond, for instance with Eurocontrol.
Finally, the UK will need to invest in infrastructure, whether this is done by the public or private sector, to develop the communications and UTM infrastructure required for widespread drone operation.
Government, business and regulators need to be pulling in the same direction
When we started working on the Flying High project, there was surprisingly little alignment between the different players in the UK drone industry. Government, regulators, technologists and service providers had some interaction, but few forums in which to share their work. Organisations worked in silos; initiatives duplicated each other’s efforts in some areas while leaving gaps in others.
Technologists and even government funding focused on individual uses, generally without considering the bigger picture. Tech push, rather than demand pull, is the dominant model.
Cities and the public were an afterthought. Neither government nor industry made any sustained effort to discuss the future of drones in cities; city-led initiatives varied in scope and ambition but were generally on a small scale.
The Flying High project has kickstarted cooperation, information sharing and created forums for these organisations to speak with each other. It put cities at the heart of the conversation. It looked at demand, rather than pushing technology for technology’s sake. Nesta’s role as a neutral arbiter, without a commercial or policy agenda, was key to playing this role.
But this is just a first step. An engagement exercise like the Flying High project has been a good start, but it’s not enough to build lasting alignment if it isn’t sustained.
The convening and coordination of stakeholders built during the Flying High project needs to continue in order to build on the alignment that has emerged during this phase. The network needs to broaden to include a wider range of cities than the five core cities we have worked with. This network is important because it can set the general direction and vision for drones in the UK. It can also play a role in defining the clear communications that are essential for achieving public support, and to inform and support engagement with the public.
As decisions are made, testing is carried out and new services are developed, the public must be part of the conversation, not just be seen as an audience.
All future activity should have a significant and meaningful element of public engagement built in.
Opportunities and threats for the UK
There is a prize for the UK if we get this right
Through our industry mapping, engagement with national stakeholders and our work with the five cities that partnered in the Flying High project, we have seen clear evidence that drones are an opportunity for the UK. Hundreds of companies already operate in the sector and can benefit from new business. UK universities have research strengths in the area. There is public support for many (though not all) use cases. Public authorities can save money or provide new and better services thanks to drones.
We have also seen a threat: UK policy responses to drones are behind those of leading countries. The US, EU, China, Switzerland and Singapore in particular have taken bigger steps towards reforming regulations, creating testbeds and supporting businesses with innovative ideas.
The prize, if we get this right, is that we shape this new technology for good - and that Britain gets its share of the economic spoils.
Challenge prizes could unlock progress
Challenge prizes have been used to kickstart transatlantic flight, driverless cars and private spacecraft. The same approach can put the UK ahead on drones
Challenge prizes reward the first or best organisation to solve a technical challenge. They:
- Create better solutions to technical problems. Prizes incentivise new thinking and reward the best solutions, wherever they come from, however they work.
- Bring together innovators and help them thrive. Prizes help innovators by providing access to information, ideas, profile-raising opportunities, investment and expertise.
- Unlock systemic change. Prizes raise awareness, inform policy and shape the future of markets and technologies.
We believe that challenge prizes offer an opportunity to realise the benefits of drones in UK cities, solve the technical challenges, build momentum behind use cases that have social benefit, and offer a means of building public and political engagement with the future of drone technology. Live and public demonstrations of the technology offer a tangible example of what the future of the technology might hold.
They are an open and democratic way of moving technology forward - rather than the closed and secretive pushing of technology that can so easily lead to growing public mistrust.
Challenge prizes have long been part of the pedigree of aviation. Historic examples of challenge prizes in comparable settings date back as far as the early 20th century, with the Daily Mail prizes and Orteig Prize that led to the first cross-channel, transatlantic and solo transatlantic flights. More recent examples include the Ansari XPRIZE (the first privately built and funded human spaceflight) and the DARPA Driverless Car Challenge which led to breakthroughs in autonomous vehicle technologies.
We propose that the challenge prizes should:
- Be developed by city-led consortia to run a series of challenge prizes based around socially beneficial use cases.
- Invite industry to develop drone platforms that meet these needs, and solve the key technical and infrastructural obstacles to their progress.
- Invite competitors to develop, test and demonstrate their solutions in testbeds: first in virtual environments, then in testing facilities, and finally in real urban environments.
- Use these testbeds both as an opportunity to prove the technology, and in order to meaningfully engage with the public and involve them in decision-making about the future of drones.
- Use the challenge process to complement the building of further alignment between stakeholders and to inform the development of policy in the field.
We propose that the challenge prizes be based around delivering the use cases like those identified in this study; the five cities who have participated in the Flying High project so far could form the core of the city consortia, but this should not preclude other cities from joining the process.