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Seizing the opportunity to shape drone usage

Source: PSE April/May 2018

Kathy Nothstine, lead for future cities in Nesta’s Challenge Prize Centre, explains how a new scheme will help local authorities harness the use of drones to improve public service delivery.

The technology enabling unmanned aerial vehicles – UAVs, or drones – to perform a variety of functions has advanced rapidly in recent years, and they have become more useful in a number of interesting ways ranging from photography and surveying, entertainment, and even delivery and transport.

The potential of drone usage to improve public sector services by creating greater efficiencies, reducing risk to workers and offering cost savings to councils is an important topic for local authorities to consider. Indeed, some are already using drones for things like infrastructure inspection and emergency management, and considering how drone surveying could be useful for everything from crime prevention to flood monitoring.

Further, with the likes of Amazon exploring parcel delivery by drone, and other commercial providers looking at passenger transport by drone, councils will soon need to set local policy around whether drones should operate in their cities. Will councils run and operate drone fleets themselves? Will local authorities allow goods delivery by drone, or restrict operations to more socially useful functions like urgent medical transport?

Regardless of how these questions are answered, we think it is important that public executives, local decision-makers and city residents themselves are at the centre of this decision-making. Too often, a new technology comes along and cities find themselves trying to accommodate it. Drone technology is advancing rapidly, but we believe the time is right now for cities to get on the front foot of shaping if and how it plays out in their community, with the public at the heart of those decisions.

Flying High Challenge

Last month, Nesta announced the five pioneering cities that we are partnering with this year to design how drone technology could operate in complex city environments to address local needs, as part of the Flying High Challenge that we developed in partnership with Innovate UK.

Bradford, London, Preston, Southampton and the West Midlands region are now working with our team to explore how drones could be used in their communities. During this five-month engagement, we are working intensively with these local and combined authorities, transport agencies and a diverse set of academic and technical experts to explore the public attitudes, policy outlook, economic opportunity, and the technical feasibility, logistics and safety of drones operating in complex urban environments.

Each city boasts credentials in areas from aerospace to robotics and autonomous vehicles, and many have unique approaches to public engagement and local economic development, making them exceptionally well-placed to deliver on both the technical and societal aspects of the programme.

Meet the cities

  • Bradford: Some of the earliest drone testing happened in Bradford, a city with a population of over half a million across a large district that includes densely populated urban areas, moorland, farmland and woodland. The team there will be looking at how drones can support district priorities such as flooding and community safety;
  • London: The capital has the busiest and most heavily regulated airspace in the UK, presenting unique challenges for drone deployment but with a natural flight corridor in the Thames. The city will be looking at a range of applications in support of the mayor’s strategies and the Healthy Streets approach to city planning, from near-term applications such as river search and rescue to future-gazing ideas such as drone deliveries;
  • Preston: A small city of over 100,000 people and the main urban centre in Lancashire, Preston is home to the largest aerospace cluster in the UK and the Civic Drone Centre, set up by the University of Central Lancashire in 2014 to work with local authorities, communities and businesses to support new applications of UAVs. Drones are already being used in Preston to support the fire service and local Environment Agency, and the council is interested in extending this to other areas such as upgrading road networks and monitoring air pollution;
  • Southampton: One of the UK’s major port cities, Southampton is interested in drone uses around port safety, blue light services and offshore logistics. The city council is working in collaboration with the University of Southampton, which has very strong drone and autonomous systems expertise as the leader of a large consortium project called CASCADE looking at implementation of drones in civil airspace – as well as participating in the EPSRC Future Cities project from a drone perspective and the Airstart project with the Royal National Lifeboat Institute;
  • West Midlands: A large region encompassing the cities of Birmingham and Coventry, including two airports, several universities, multiple local authorities and 2.8 million residents, the West Midlands region is interested in UAV use cases surrounding the UK City of Culture 2021 and Commonwealth Games 2022 events. There are robust explorations going on in the region around autonomous/semi-autonomous systems, creating potential synergies for Flying High.

Until the end of June 2018, the Flying High team will work closely with each city to explore potential uses of drones, develop visions that shape the future of drones in each city, and identify the necessary requirements to sustainably realise these visions.

(Top image © David Parry / PA Wire)




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