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What is a drone's role in a city?

The Flying High programme investigated and analysed five socially beneficial use cases

Cities are excited about drones, especially in the area of critical public services, said Nesta
Cities are excited about drones, especially in the area of critical public services, said Nesta

Drones can bring a raft of benefits to UK cities but building public confidence is key, according to the findings of the first phase of global innovation foundation Nesta’s Flying High programme, in partnership with the UK innovation agency, Innovate UK.


Flying High is a collaborative project with five UK city-regions (Bradford, London, Preston, Southampton and the West Midlands), along with the NHS, police and fire services, national stakeholders from central government, technology experts, industry leaders, academics and regulators.


The programme has been undertaken by Nesta’s Challenge Prize Centre, which uses prizes to stimulate innovative solutions to some of the biggest challenges we face. The challenge seeks to position the UK to become a global leader in shaping drone systems that place people’s needs first.


The Flying High team worked closely with these different stakeholders to explore the current state and future ambitions for drones in urban environments in the UK. In partnership with the Flying High cities, five socially beneficial use cases were analysed to investigate their technical, social and economic implications. These are:


• medical delivery within London – a drone delivery network for carrying urgent medical products between NHS facilities, which would routinely carry products such as pathology samples, blood products and equipment over relatively short distances between hospitals in a network
• traffic incident response in the West Midlands – responding to traffic incidents in the West Midlands to support the emergency services prior to their arrival and while they are on-site, allowing them to allocate the right resources and respond more effectively
• fire response in Bradford – emergency response drones for West Yorkshire Fire and Rescue service. Drones would provide high-quality information to support emergency call handlers and fire ground commanders, arriving on the scene faster than is currently possible and helping staff plan an appropriate response for the seriousness of the incident
• construction and regeneration in Preston – drone services supporting construction work for urban projects. This would involve routine use of drones prior to and during construction, in order to survey sites and gather real-time information on the progress of works
• medical delivery across the Solent – linking Southampton across the Solent to the Isle of Wight using a delivery drone. Drones could carry light payloads of up to a few kilos over distances of around 20 miles, with medical deliveries of products being a key benefit.


Key findings from this phase of Flying High, which featured a number of work streams including public impact analysis, systems research, industry mapping and key stakeholder engagement, are outlined below.


Drones can bring benefits to UK cities: cities are excited about the possibilities that drones can bring, particularly in terms of critical public services, but are also wary of tech-led buzz that can gloss over concerns of privacy, safety and nuisance. Cities want to seize the opportunity behind drones but do it in a way that responds to what their citizens demand.


Public confidence is key: cities are starting to think about what drones should and should not do, but so far the general public has played very little part in the discussion. There is support for the use of drones for public benefit such as for the emergency services. In the first instance, the focus on drone development should be on publicly beneficial use cases.


There are technical and regulatory challenges to scale: the five cities examined a wide array of tasks that drones can perform. For example, in complex environments, flight beyond the operator’s visual line of sight, autonomy and precision flight are key, as is the development of an unmanned traffic management (UTM) system to safely manage airspace. In isolation these are close to being solved but making these work at large scale in a complex urban environment is not.


A vision for the future: there is growing alignment between the key stakeholders -- government, industry, regulators -- on what the future of drones should look like in the UK. Prior to the Flying High project beginning, there was surprisingly little coordination between key players, and cities were largely absent from the discussion. This momentum needs to be kept up and the public urgently need to be brought into discussions about the future of drones.


Nesta and Innovate UK said the key recommendation of this report is to organise major challenge prizes related to the five use cases that have been investigated. This process would drive innovation in the key technical barriers to drone development, while forming the core of a continued programme of public and political engagement.


In addition to the challenge prizes, the report recommends that regulation be updated to reflect advances in drone technology, particularly around management of urban airspace; and investment in the infrastructure that drones will need if they are ever to operate at large scale.


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