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September 28, 2018updated 04 Aug 2023 9:28am

The rise of the drones means your municipal council will need a skyways department

By Tris Dyson

Before long, your local council’s highways department may need to be joined by a skyways department. That’s what NESTA has found over the past year, as we’ve looked at the future of drones in the UK.

In the space of a few years, drones have gone from being either a low-tech novelty toy, or a high-tech and high-cost tool out of the reach of anyone aside from the military. But as their price has tumbled, their use has soared and their technology has matured. They are now routinely used on building sites and to monitor vital infrastructure like railway tracks, taking workers out of harm’s way. And in emergencies, police and fire services use them to gather the real-time information they need to save lives.

So far so good. But as the technology improves, there is much more that drones could do.

They can fly further and faster than before. Technologists are making breakthroughs in self-piloting and remote operation, which means they no longer need to fly within sight of an operator with a remote control. They can operate ever more safely and securely even in challenging environments.

And that means they could soon be used over far wider parts of our cities. While just now they might hover low over a building site or linger over the site of a fire, in future they could routinely survey entire areas of cities, or launch from a fire station and fly autonomously to the site of a 999 call.

That’s what’s technically possible. Whether it’s what we want as a society is of course another question.

Autonomous drones flying over built-up areas would be a big change to our urban environment, and it’s not something that should be done without public support. And while some of the more commercial uses of drones – delivering online shopping, pizzas, even air taxis – are viewed with some suspicion, we’ve found a receptive audience for more socially beneficial uses.

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Both our opinion polling and the extensive consultation we carried out over nine months with five local authorities in England show that there are some use cases for drones that have clear public support: uses such as emergency response to fires or car crashes; carrying urgent medical samples between hospitals; making medical deliveries to islands such as the Isle of Wight; carrying out safety-critical tasks in building sites that can speed up construction and reduce risks to workers.

Allowing these use cases for drones to become reality – as well as the more commercial uses, should public opinion move in their favour – requires more work, though.

As things stand, it’s hard to get permission to operate drones remotely, near buildings, near helicopter routes, or in countless restricted areas of airspace around the country. (These cover everything from power stations to airports to prisons.) The patchwork of airspace authority makes operating in many urban areas illegal unless you’re granted special permission, restricting where and how drones can be used.

On top of this, unlike for airliners operating high in the sky, there is no comprehensive air traffic control system for drones (although there are regulations for operation).

Right now, with small numbers operating, and the drones rarely straying far from their pilots, this lack of air traffic control isn’t much of a problem – but with heavier traffic, and drones sometimes ranging for miles across busy airspace, we’ll need a way to keep everything under control.

So if we’re serious about the benefits these uses of drones can bring, we need a way to manage low-altitude airspace in cities. And unlike air traffic control, which has little impact on those below beyond seeing airliners as specks in the sky above, a drone traffic control system would have bigger implications on our lives. Low-flying drones could affect the privacy and safety of those below; areas of heavy traffic could see noise or visual pollution. So unlike airspace at 30,000 feet, which is rightly national government’s job to regulate, low-level airspace in cities needs a different approach.

We think city governments – local councils, combined authorities – have unique legitimacy in doing this. Even if the technical operation of a drone traffic control might best belong in another organisation, and even be run by a single body across the whole UK, we think it’s vital that oversight, decision making and strategic direction come from your local skyways department – not by diktat from Westminster.

But the conversation needs to be broader – including potential users of drones such as emergency services, the NHS, public services, and those that own the infrastructure that drones may interact with, such as Network Rail. These types of organisations have never been involved in aviation in the past – but the emerging field of urban air mobility is about much more than aviation technology. And direct involvement from local people is vital.

In the coming years, as we decide where drones can operate, what rules they must follow and what tasks they can carry out in cities, we’ll need to make many decisions about how they operate. Let’s make sure they’re made by, and in the best interests of the people they will most affect – and not by those with the most money or the most entrenched interests.

Tris Dyson is executive director of Nesta’s Challenge Prize Centre.

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