Can the UK take a lead in the drone industry?

The DJI Mavic 2 Pro drone in flight
(Image credit: Future)

Since Amazon announced its intentions to begin drone deliveries in California later this year, there has been huge speculation around the potential for similar regulatory approval in the UK. Drone technology has the potential to bring fantastic transformation: from introducing valuable tools for new public services and making business safer and more efficient, to enhancing the transportation of goods and cargo.

About the author

Dave Pankhurst, Director of Drones, BT.

The news from California is not new. Drone transportation has been in trial across the world since before the pandemic. At home, we used drones to carry two types of COVID-19 vaccine and completed the first shore-to-ship medical delivery of COVID-19 test kits. And just last week, the NHS announced it will be trialing the world’s first delivery of chemotherapy by drone. It’s becoming increasingly clear that this technology has a crucial potential as a force for good across both commercial and non-profit industries, creating new jobs and saving lives in the process.

The road ahead for drones

When it comes to drones, we’re looking at a promising technology with the potential to support some of the hardest challenges facing business, public sector, non-profits and populations. With speed, agility and perspective, new levels of situational awareness are enabled that can save lives, support conservation, monitor change and transport goods at a fraction of the cost and carbon output. 

This is alongside revolutionizing processes in larger environments. In ports, drones can be deployed to monitor cargo and enhance security, and in industries such as telecommunications, transport, and logistics, drones are helping assess damage or identify maintenance required for critical national infrastructure, improving health and safety.

Steadily, initial safety concerns surrounding drones are being overturned as more people recognize their propensity to help public safety – from search & rescue missions to fire services responding to major incidents. What’s more, if drones stand to make businesses more efficient, consumers could benefit from the cost savings made.

However, there is a crucial piece of the puzzle missing that would allow drone technology to be used more widely. Drone operators need to have the ability to fly Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) to cover greater distances and empower industries to create new solutions, while enabling us to deconflict and manage the flights safely.

The UK faces some particular challenges in this field. Airspace above major cities is crowded and complicated, making planning tricky. The regulatory regime is equally complex, and so far, routine BVLOS authorizations have only been granted to a handful of companies as trials. That said, we are moving in the right direction. The UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) published guidance last month on its progress for safe routing of BVLOS flights in the UK work and Ofcom similarly just announced proposals for new airwaves licensing needed for BVLOS to support the CAA.

With the right testing to satisfy regulators, the UK will soon be able to unlock a whole range of flying opportunities. But the ability to fly longer distances, out of immediate line of sight, is crucial if we are to achieve these opportunities.

Unlocking the skies

To support the introduction of BVLOS flights for operators, we need a safe and secure way to manage and deconflict drone flights. Since December 2020, BT and software provider Altitude Angel, together with an expert consortium, have been delivering a series of industry use cases across the UK’s first commercial drone zone to support the use of open and unrestricted airspace in the UK. Continuing this momentum, we’ve submitted plans to build the world’s largest and longest network of ‘drone superhighways' linking towns and cities right across the country, as part of a new project led by Altitude Angel.

Project Skyway, the first drone superhighway, is planned at 165 miles long, and will provide the digital infrastructure needed to power a national drone economy. It will combine a network of existing and new technologies underpinned by Altitude Angel's proven Uncrewed Traffic Management (UTM) platform and BT’s secure EE mobile network to incorporate existing air traffic management and communications systems. With this end-to-end solution, other UK towns, cities and organizations can follow, opening up the sky for effective drone transportation.

The movement towards a fully powered drone economy is truly underway. Stakeholders in the UK need to challenge legacy regulations and planning policy to usher in the drones era. Public support will follow swiftly as they see the value from new use cases as they emerge. With an excellent safety record, numerous efficiency benefits, and low pollution rates, drones could be the next step to helping us realize the economic advantage of the perfect balance between innovation, safety and sustainability. 

From here however, the UK needs to get on the front foot if its to compete as a global leader in drones. It’s a master of its own destiny in that regard, and with the right policy choices and pace it can leapfrog other markets and realize the drone economy sooner than most.

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Dave Pankhurst, Director of Drones, BT.