Sunday 7 April 2019 11:08 am

Drones, Gatwick, and the future: how this new aerial technology can benefit the UK economy and the public good

New technologies always stir emotion, and as we’ve seen with the drone incidents at Heathrow and Gatwick, they can even result in new legislation.

Following the announcement by the government and Civil Aviation Authority regarding an extended no-fly zone and stop-and-search powers for police, it is clear that the time is right to increase our understanding of drones.

But this must be within the form of more nuanced discussion that doesn’t immediately call for black and white constraints.

For the public good

Our Flying High programme looks to shape the future of drones in UK cities; we take a collaborative approach by working with key organisations, including city hall, hospitals, and emergency services, as well as central government, academia, industry leaders, and regulators.

Read more: Drone scare at Dublin Airport temporarily grounds flights

During our discussions, we’ve found that local leaders are far more receptive to the use of drones when used for social good, such as the transport of urgent medical supplies or the fire service investigating burning buildings.

We also ran a survey of MPs which revealed that the majority would be in favour of new initiatives enabling the use of drones for the public’s benefit. More than 83 per cent of MPs supported the use of drones to monitor road pollution and air quality. Over 77 per cent were in favour of using drones to support fire and rescue services – as long as they relieved pressure on emergency services.

Understandably, the public and local leaders also want parameters placed on drone use to protect safety and privacy. These two things are fundamental and non-negotiable.

The impact on local economies

Some companies are already looking at how drones will be the source of their future growth and success.

For example, Network Rail has started using drones to assess and improve their rail network, and Altitude Angel partnered with Manchester Airport and the National Air Traffic Services to demonstrate an unmanned traffic management system with a programme called Operation Zenith.

This last example is noteworthy, because as well as looking to improve operational efficiency, it showed that drones can be operated safely within an airport’s exclusion zone, provided the right safety protocols are put in place.

In fact, the potential economic benefit to the UK economy is quite staggering. If managed responsibly, PWC estimates the drone industry could add £42bn to UK GDP by 2030.

Finding solutions to modern challenges

There is a big challenge in developing technical systems alongside policy and regulations. Currently, exemptions for drone users prevent many sensible, viable, and socially beneficial use cases from operating routinely and at scale.

Permission should be made easier for some use cases by default, if they have a clear social benefit and they’re run by responsible operators.

But developing and deploying such new technologies brings many other complex challenges: the legislation needs to be right, the market must be ready, and the technology has to be mature enough.

One thing is clear: as the industry has advanced, the use of drones in cities is becoming more of a reality. Some of the most senior leaders in government agree that drones have a positive role in the future of the UK. For instance, the minister of state for security, Ben Wallace, says “drones have huge potential to assist our public services and industry. It is vital that the sector contributes to shaping both the regulatory environment and the future market place”.

What we do know is that there must be highly visible public and political engagement to ensure a collaborative approach towards using drones in our cities in a way that benefits society.

We also need to look at the many actors beyond the traditional aerospace sector. These include local government and transport authorities, experts in ground transport and logistics, construction, planning, communications, and potential service users (such as the NHS and emergency services). From there, we can create the rules, regulations, and infrastructure needed to see drones used on a day-to-day basis in our cities.

Read more: What’s on your tech radar for 2019?

Throughout our time working on Flying High, we’ve found that – despite the misuse of drones in certain areas and the stringent laws against their use – the public, local organisations, and MPs are all in favour of responsible drone use when the public benefits.

So, we must question whether the focus needs to be on fewer constraints and more on ensuring appropriate and safe use of drones in public spaces. This requires more rigorous engagement and discussion with all parties about how modern technology can be utilised for the benefit of society as a whole.