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The rise of the drones: Why the UK should empower cities to shape urban air mobility

Innovation charity NESTA on what drones mean for our cities.

As the UK and Europe seek to integrate cutting-edge aerospace and smart mobility technologies in cities, the UK needs to take on a clear leadership role or risk falling behind. It must provide cities and the people who live in the information and power to shape this future.

Earlier this month, as part of the first anniversary of the government’s Industrial Strategy. business secretary Greg Clark attended a roundtable discussion in London about the future of technology and mobility in the UK. To reinforce and grow the UK’s global leadership in aerospace and mobility, Clark announced a new joint government-industry Aerospace Sector Deal to develop “Future Flight”. The deal aims to transform urban mobility through greater use of city airspace, and to spark the development of the next generation of electric planes, drones and autonomous aircraft by 2025.

Investing in technology and enabling new mobility solutions is a critical opportunity for the UK. But developing an entirely new sector requires understanding and using perspectives and capabilities across many different disciplines, centred around the public interest. This is particularly poignant when it comes to drone technology and interaction with the public and surrounding infrastructure.

Under the Flying High programme, we partnered with cities to explore the potential benefits that drones could bring as well as the risks. It was important to focus on cities because there is a significant potential market in urbanised areas; but cities, with all their complexities, present some of the greatest challenges when introducing a new form of transport and service delivery.

What has been learned so far?

In the first phase of Flying High, cities are keen to take advantage of the potential public service uses of drones (such as assisting with urgent medical transport or responding to emergency incidents) but want to place parameters on their use to protect safety and privacy and limit noise and visual blight.

Also, if drones are to bring cost savings and societal benefit to cities, they need to fly out of sight of an operator and in many cases autonomously. And it goes without saying that safety and security are non-negotiable.

A central challenge is developing technical systems alongside policy and regulations to enable drones to work in places with many people, tall buildings and varied land uses. This means involving many actors beyond the traditional aerospace sector, including 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).

Most importantly, these systems need to be designed with input from the public.


European-wide urban air mobility

The recent announcement from government comes on the heels of the launch of a European-wide initiative, the European Innovation Partnership on Smart Cities and Communities (EIP-SCC) Urban Air Mobility Initiative. Nesta is the UK ambassador for this initiative and at Amsterdam Drone Week in November, Nesta took part in the first forum of the network of cities across Europe engaged in shaping the future of urban air mobility (UAM).

The UAM initiative is an effort to bridge the gaps among city and regional governments and the drone, transport and urban planning communities, to shape the next generation of urban mobility at it incorporates aerial transport.

More than 20 cities have signed up to the initiative, with a number of others committing to participate and learn from its activities in the coming year, and current aims are to launch practical demonstration projects over the next 18 months. Similar to Flying High, a central tenet of the European initiative is the empowerment of citizens as the key driver in shaping technology.

Technology demonstrators and public trials of drone technology are now happening all over the world (see, AfricaUS). More than ever, the UK needs to work out its position or risk falling behind, and cannot succeed without engaging the public.

What’s next?

To build on the momentum we’ve built so far, the next steps are to develop and prove place-based urban drone use cases demonstrating technological capabilities and public benefit based on viable business cases. We are engaging with potential users – policymakers, regulators, industry, end-users, citizens – to develop the use case envelopes and design the testing environments in early 2019, to enable the launch of urban drone challenge competitions later next year, culminating in the world’s first live urban drone trials in UK cities.

Kathy Nothstine is lead for Future Cities in the Challenge Prize Centre at NESTA, working on the future of urban transport and global cities. Click here to find out more about the Flying High programme.
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