Flying High is the first programme of its kind to bring city leaders, regulators, and industry experts together to discuss a shared vision of the future of drones in the UK.
Programme lead Nishita Dewan spoke to the Robotics Law Journal about the Flying High Challenge and the obstacles that face urban integration of drones.
RLJ: What is the history of the challenge?
Nishita Dewan: Drone technology isn’t new, it’s already being used around the world across many different sectors. The prime goal for Nesta was to help put society first in the introduction of emerging technologies. This programme has been designed with a “cities first” approach, where we are examining the issues and challenges faced by UK cities before determining how best to use technology to assist them, rather than trying to force a new technology on them for the sake of it. This approach also means that in the future, the knowledge that we generate about the cities can be applied to other technologies, not just drones.
RLJ: How does the programme work?
ND: The programme is split into two phases: design and implementation. Phase one is focussed around engagement of different parties. First, stakeholder engagement, convening the key players at a national level to support us, building those relationships, and to help us be part of the national conversation about the strategic vision and what will be the framework for the UK as regards drones. Next was city outreach – to spread awareness and invite cities from across the UK to apply to be part of the Flying High Challenge. We really wanted to have a good representation across not just the large metro areas but across the breadth of UK cities, both in terms of geography and demographic size. In this initial contact, we soon realised that they all had a different starting point when it came to drone technology, so we published some research on our website to create a level playing field of knowledge across the cities.
Twenty cities applied to be part of the Flying High Challenge. We curated an independent judging panel made up of a range of experts in both drones and cities, as well as users, and worked with them to select five finalists. We’re now working with the five cities to help develop their drone vision, to understand how the system would work with multiple drone use cases operating in their cities, and then narrowing it down to one use case per city. We’ll be exploring what the technical frameworks are to actually bring this use case to life, what the regulatory requirements or challenges are; we will then look at the economic and commercial business opportunities, as well as any societal implications of that use case.
The insights we gain from this should give an indication of the appetite for further work in this area, to turn this knowledge and research into real life demonstrations and test cases.
RLJ: What can drones do for cities?
ND: Drones, as a technology, are a medium to solve problems. Some of the most high-profile applications of drones are in their military uses, or in humanitarian response efforts, but these uses aren’t necessarily what can help the cities. Our priorities lie in first ascertaining the issues our five cities have, and whether drones will be able to help make efficiency gains in these areas.
Critical infrastructure inspection, such as monitoring and repairing street work, and traffic monitoring and incident response are some key areas for cities that can be boosted by the application of drones. We envisage that drones could even facilitate harmonisation right across the emergency services. In an emergency incident response, a single drone could potentially capture critical information useful across the three emergency services, to speed up response time and the efficiency of the response.
At present, we are still helping each city to shortlist the three main use cases representing the most pressing issues for them, which will then be narrowed down to a final use case to explore in further detail.
RLJ: What are the barriers to entry for drones in cities?
ND: There are three main barriers. First, implementing drones as a medium to solve problems requires a considerable degree of collaboration to ensure that they are integrated safely in a way that pleases all parties. To that end, we’ve asked each of the cities to form a consortium of partners from the public and private sectors to work with.
The second barrier is understanding the regulation and the legal requirements. We are working on two different levels. We have the local strategy where we’re working with the cities; and we also have the key national stakeholders who are the Department for Transport (DfT), the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), and the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS), and our funders Innovate UK. So we serve as a kind of bridge between the macro level which sets out the national strategy and vision, and the micro level of the cities.
The third barrier is public sentiment, potentially one of the biggest stumbling blocks. The use of drones within the military has created a negative public perception around the technology, which is not helped by the recurrent series of incidents of reckless flying and near misses with planes. We’re hoping that, through our efforts to highlight the societal and economic benefits of drones, we will be able to shift that public mindset.
RLJ: What are the challenges unique to the cities?
ND: The independent judging panel selected five cities with differing dynamics; Southampton, as a port town, presents a range of different opportunities to Bradford. An example of the problems facing all cities is the transportation of medical supplies between hospitals. In Southampton, there is the added challenge surrounding the lack of efficient modes of transport between the city and the Isle of Wight. Deliveries by drones could potentially be the solution. Construction monitoring is useful for all cities, but especially so in the West Midlands, where there is a lot of urban regeneration currently taking place. Each city can provide a unique testing hotbed for drone technology.
RLJ: What's next?
ND: It’s still quite open-ended in terms of the next steps. This first phase will end around June, at which point we will be able to gauge the appetite for future work in this area. We will then be looking at implementing some demonstrations and tests of the drone plans for the cities and hopefully even work with cities outside the five finalists.
RLJ: Can the UK become a leader in drone technology?
ND: Absolutely. We want to make the case that there is a strong opportunity here to put the UK at the forefront of developing the drone sector, both in terms of technology adoption, and supplying academic research and development hubs to really explore the opportunity of the cluster effect and to strengthen the domestic market through the creation of new jobs and boosting the economy.
What’s truly unique about the project is the fact that we are forming a direct network by working with the five partner cities and the stakeholders, but we also have an indirect network that we’re working closely with, made up of academic research labs, industry corporate players, and the other fifteen cities that applied. We hope to fast track the learning across the five immediate cities but by doing it an open source manner we can share our work across the country. The way the UK can reach the top of this sector is by convening and collaborating the right players and by sharing that knowledge.
RLJ: What do you think the future holds?
ND: A lot of it comes down to timing. With the technology already available and under rapid development, bringing an approach that is “people first” when it comes to new technologies is so important. I used to work on the other side of the table where we didn’t take a “cities first” approach, we took an “company first” approach, which I didn’t think was the right way to do things. I think the programme being designed in this way is really the best opportunity to help put the UK at the forefront of developing the sector. Hopefully, the approach we’re taking by putting cities first in the adoption of drones means that the same approach could be applied in the future for different technologies as well.