A UK government-backed drone project undertaken by global innovation foundation Nesta has been exploring how unmanned aerial vehicles could benefit urban centres and cities.
This has instigated the involvement of five city regions being used as drone test-beds as part of Nesta’s Flying High Challenge — namely London, the West Midlands, Southampton, Preston and Bradford, nurturing growing alignment between the key stakeholders – government, industry, regulators – on what the future of drones should look like in the UK.
With considerable evidence that the economic opportunity for the UK is substantial, the Flying High project’s goal is to help accelerate the use of cutting edge robotic drone technologies into real-world, complex city environments, it states in the latest report released by Nesta this week.
Its findings will be important for the whole robotics and AI sector, although there exist several challenges – solving the key technical and societal hurdles for drones to name a few. Notwithstanding there is considerable appetite for the use of drones in these cities, and for public service applications in particular.
In partnership with five cities, Nesta has chosen five socially beneficial use cases in order to explore their technical, social and economic aspects. These are:
- Medical delivery in London.
- Traffic incident response in the West Midlands.
- Southampton-Isle of Wight medical delivery.
- Construction and regeneration in Preston.
- Supporting the fire and rescue service in Bradford.
Nesta came up with the idea that a programme of challenge prizes would accelerate solutions to complex and interconnected issues and proposed next phase of the Flying Project as a series of major challenge prizes built around creating real-world trials to demonstrate the use cases identified.
This process would drive innovation to address the key technical barriers to drone development, while forming the core of a continued programme of public and wider stakeholder engagement. Brought together, this can unlock the opportunity for the UK.
Over the last 12 months, Nesta has lead the unique collaborative research and engagement programme to better understand the demand for the use of drones in UK cities, and what implementation of these services would be like.
Working in partnership with five UK cities, as well as regulators and researchers shows that drones can fulfil socially beneficial goals, but that there are challenges that need to be solved.
For instance, there is a need to create a regulatory environment to allow autonomous flight, or piloted flight beyond the operator’s line of sight, that makes deployment of drones over long distances or in large numbers feasible.
Also creating the air traffic control systems that allow drones to operate at scale without interfering with each other or with traditional aircraft is imperative, as is involving the public as well as public authorities in order to unlock the full potential of the drone market in the UK.
The multiple benefits of drones include 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.
In regards to the medical sector, national clinical lead for Innovation at NHS England Professor Tony Young said in a statement, “We want to harness the massive potential of technology in the NHS to deliver improved patient care and the use of drones offers exciting possibilities.
“As the NHS develops its long term plan we will be looking at the use of technology now, tomorrow and into the future to ensure we can take advantage of all the benefits new innovations can bring.”
In addition, drones could definitely benefit workers in hazardous and challenging environments-working at height or in confined, compromised or unstable places, such as in fire emergencies.
Deputy Chief Fire Officer Dave Walton from West Yorkshire Fire & Rescue Service explained how drones are adding to the capabilities of fire departments. “We already use drone technology at certain types of fires to give our Incident Commanders an aerial view of the extent of a fire or its exact positioning within a large building. Indeed, a drone has recently been used at moorland fires for exactly this purpose and this can greatly assist in decision making of how to best tackle a blaze,” he said.
“However, these trials look beyond this capability to see whether drones could assist the Fire Service even further – potentially even getting to a fire before fire crews are able to by road to live stream visuals back which would enable us to start planning our tactical response. Having this information would put our firefighters a step ahead and ultimately could save time which is of the essence when dealing with any emergency.”
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, were also identified as applications for drones that would benefit cities.
Drones could also be employed for assessing discrete objects, areas or systems to evaluate their current state, or aid in transporting passengers from one location to another, for instance in an emergency.
Currently also being explored is the concept of using people-carrying drones on a large scale to reduce traffic congestion and reduce strain on existing public transport, although public confidence was also identified as a key factor in the adoption of these technologies.
Andrew Tyrer, Challenge Director of Robots for a Safer World Challenge, (Innovate UK), concluded, “The five city projects under the Flying High Challenge are all excellent examples of the potential for drone technology to make a real difference to our everyday lives. This important report clearly sets out the challenges involved in delivering the vision for drone utilisation in city landscapes, and also points out the huge potential for UK companies and organisations to seize these exciting opportunities.”