Drone Futures: How the UK can lead from the front
The first techUK/DJI Drone Futures conference took place yesterday. The almost 100 attendees drawn from Government (both Whitehall and local), regulators, the House of lords, academia, Catapults, police and (of course) industry was indicative of the considerable interest in drones across many sectors.
Drones are taking their place alongside AI/Machine Learning/robotics, Cloud services, Blockchain, the Internet Of Things, immersive technologies and greater ubiquity of connectivity, as one of a handful of technologies defining our futures.
Elaine Whyte, PwC’s UK Drones Lead, highlighted that her new research report Skies without limits, suggests that drone technology has the potential to increase UK GDP by £42 billion (or 2%) by 2030.
Drones offer industry cost savings, safety improvements and productivity gains, often substantial in size such as where operators of oil rigs use drones to inspect live flares, where previously the asset would be shut down for inspection at a cost of around £4 million per day.
Being cheap, easily transportable, and quick to deploy, drones are being utilised in a wide range of professional circumstances where other options (e.g. helicopters) would be impractical or impossible. The range of professional applications is increasing all of the time: from emergency services to logistics, agriculture to maintenance of essential infrastructure. Drones have rapidly become essential for engineering and construction industries, and are now an essential tool for the oil and gas industry and Network Rail.
But for the UK to seize the potential identified by PwC, industry will need to collaborate (including on access to drone-derived data), and regulation will need to be appropriate and agile for what is a rapidly developing market. We need to get the balance right with regulation, addressing legitimate security and privacy concerns, but without unduly constraining innovation.
An example of how current drone regulations impacts enterprise use is where drones are used to scan wind turbine blades to identify damage. The current height limit for operating a drone only equates to mid "spinner" on a wind turbine, so the operator needs to secure dispensation for each inspection, and the effective prohibition on flying beyond visual line of sight means that the operator can’t just park, get the drone out, and inspect an entire wind farm, instead they have to keep getting back into their vehicle and driving to another turbine. This despite the fact that this is trained users with professional equipment, in locations which are usually away from buildings and people.
If we get this balance right, the UK can be a leader in drones, the place where innovative applications are trialled. It was certainly heartening to hear at the conference from Department of Transport, NATS, Ofcom and others how open to ideas from industry they are, recognising both the commercial opportunities and the fact that there is no “one size fits all” solution – no country can be said to have this right at the moment.
The draft Drones Bill, to be published this summer, is the opportunity for Government, regulators and industry to identify that balance. But we need to bring the public along with us. Many consumers have concerns about the use of drones that they don’t have for helicopters. Such concerns will be reflected in MPs’ postbags, and we can expect that to flavour debate of the Drones Bill.
Public support for wider use of drones will most readily be forthcoming for public services such as search and rescue, traffic management, urgent supply of bloods and medicines, and identifying plastic litter on beaches and in oceans. Public support may also be available for enterprise uses of drones in locations away from buildings and where the public see a clear benefit, such as supporting maintenance of the rail network or raising agricultural yields.
But if we are to extend public support beyond such examples, so that the UK reaps the entirety of the GDP boost outlined by PwC, then the public need to be more aware of the use of drones delivering public services, not as an occasional news story but woven into the fabric of their environment, drones becoming “business as usual” rather than an exception. Given that the public sector and charities, which would generally be the operators of drone-augmented public services, are likely to have a low appetite for risk and similarly low levels of resources, then the drone industry could do worse than directly support the provision of such public services, that investment paying off in the long run – for all of us.
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