Author Trevor Clawson

To hobbyists, they are an intriguing and engaging novelty. To military chiefs they provide a means to police troubled spots while keeping highly-trained pilots well away from harm’s way. To businesses such as  Amazon, they represent a means to speed the delivery of premium products to ever-more demanding customers. We are of course talking about drones. those remotely controlled or autonomous vehicles that are set to play an increasingly important role in our lives.

But like all new and promising technologies, the degree to which drones will affect the way we live and work has yet to be fully explored. With that in mind, the UK government has launched an initiative aimed at ensuring that Britain plays a leading role, not just in nurturing drone development but also in encouraging private and public sector organisations to deploy these micro aircraft in new and innovative ways.

The Flying High Challenge

Hence the launch of the Flying High Challenge. Funded by the Department of Transport and fronted by Nesta and Innovate UK – two government-sponsored organisations set up to promote and encourage innovation – the initiative is inviting Britain’s cities to propose ways that drones might be used in urban areas to benefit residents and contribute to economic development.

The overarching aim of the challenge is to underpin a Government objective that Britain will become a leading global player in the remote controlled and autonomous vehicles market. From this month through to January 19, cities are being invited to take part.

It’s a market that could provide huge opportunities for UK businesses – both established players and technology startups. According to Andrew Tyrer, the Robotics Challenge Director of Innovate UK’s Industrial Strategy Research Fund, the sector will have a value of between £5.3 and £9.7 trillion by 2025.  “They could transform our public services and infrastructure, and hugely benefit society,” he said.

And as Tris Dyson, executive director of Nesta’s Challenge Prize Sector explained, a key goal of the initiative is to ensure that drone technology delivers genuine benefits to urban residents.  ,

“If we are going to have drones in our towns and cities they must be fit for our society, “ she said.  “ We need to commit to finding approaches that work at the local level and meet the needs of people without risk to public safety or nuisance.”

Unmanned aircraft already an invaluable tool

Leaving aside the now familiar site of weekend pilots flying copter drones in parks and other open spaces, unmanned aircraft are already proving to be invaluable tools in many industries. For instance,  Network rail has deployed a fleet of “inspection drones” to patrol rail lines and detect problems and emergency teams are using unmanned vehicles to survey disaster zones. Meanwhile, drones are enhancing customer service by delivering small items. Amazon has been a pioneer in this area.

Blue Sky Thinking - UK Launches City Initiative To Boost Drones Industry

In cities, drones offer a huge advantage over conventional vehicles in that they can rise above the traffic and street systems and move quickly to where they are needed. With that in mind, the Flying High Challenge is encouraging cities to explore use cases, which might include: delivering medicines or carrying Oran transports, risk assessment in emergency situations,  search and rescue, traffic monitoring, logistics.

In the first instance, Nesta and Innovate are calling on cities to submit proposals and ultimately five will be selected to develop and trial ideas.

“The Challenge asks cities to start with a blank piece of paper and design how drones could be used in ways that bring genuine public benefit, without unacceptable costs,” said Dyson.

The Drone Controversy

Crucially, the cities and drone development companies selected to take part in the project will also be working closely with regulators to ensure that trials are conducted safely and within the law.

Not least because drones are controversial. Since off-the-shelf vehicles have become available, there have been reports of near misses with civil aircraft and numerous widely-reported stories of criminals using small remote-controlled machines to deliver drugs and other contraband to prison inmates. Equally, there are privacy concerns surrounding the ability of camera-equipped drones to aid and abet one neighbour to spy on another.

Public concern is reflected on a poll carried out by the Flying High Challenge organisers. When asked about drones being used to deliver parcels for commercial companies, 44% of respondents declared themselves to be strongly opposed and more than a third expressed concern about unmanned vehicles being used for leisure activities. There was, however, a high degree of support for developments that would help deliver better public services in areas such as law enforcement and healthcare.

Drones and Striking a Balance

So while the Department of Transport is financing the challenge through its Industrial Strategy Fund, ministers and civil servants are also introducing safety and privacy legislation. “Drones have great potential and we want to do everything possible to harness the benefits of this technology as it develops,” said Aviation Minister, Baroness Suggs,

“But if we are to realise the full potential of this incredibly exciting technology, we have to take steps to stop illegal use of these devices and address safety and privacy concerns.”

According to the Minister, the planned new laws are intended to  strike a balance between

“allowing  the vast majority of drone users to continue flying safely and responsibly, while also paving the way for drone technology to revolutionise businesses and public services.”

New measures will include the registration of larger drones (above 250 grams) and awareness tests for pilots.

While the project will be initiated by cities and Local Enterprise Partnerships, the Flying High Challenge offers clear opportunities in the longer term for UK businesses to become involved with funded projects that explore the real-world use of drones. And as such, the project could play an important role in creating a thriving UK industry. Like driverless cars, drones will be operating public spaces and initially, they will have to be tested in those same areas. By becoming involved at this stage, the national and local government can provide a necessary test bed.