Cities to make UK world leader in drone technology

drone builders

A new challenge has been set today to invite cities to design how drone technology could be used to support their local needs – from transporting urgent medical supplies to flood search and rescue and maintenance and inspection for icons like The Blackpool Tower.

Led by cities, Flying High will position the UK to become a global leader in shaping drone systems that place people’s needs first.

The Flying High Challenge, run by Nesta in partnership with Innovate UK, will consider how drone technology develops to meet the needs and realities of urban life. The Department for Transport announced the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund funding for the pioneering project as it outlined plans for new legislation to allow drone users to continue flying safely and legally, helping to place the UK at the forefront of the fast-growing drone industry.

Aviation Minister Baroness Sugg said, “Drones have great potential and we want to do everything possible to harness the benefits of this technology as it develops. But if we are to realise the full potential of this incredibly exciting technology, we have to take steps to stop illegal use of these devices and address safety and privacy concerns.  These new laws strike a balance, to allow the vast majority of drone users to continue flying safely and responsibly, while also paving the way for drone technology to revolutionise businesses and public services.”

Drone technology is advancing rapidly and many people will be familiar with, for example, Amazon’s plans for parcels to be delivered by drones, and Network Rail’s inspection drones. The Flying High Challenge will work with up to five urban areas (through an open call selection process) to explore if and how the technology could operate locally, in a complex city environment.

Drones are part of a global tide of complex technological change that will require a new approach to how we plan for emerging industries; and in turn reap social and economic benefits. The selected cities, together with regulators, businesses and the industry, will look at issues ranging from regulation and ethics to safety and public opinion.

Tris Dyson, executive director of Nesta’s Challenge Prize Centre, explains, “If we are going to have drones in our towns and cities they must be fit for our society. By finding uses for the technology — beyond toys for hobbyists or used in conflict — the UK can establish itself as a world leader in drones. We need to commit to finding approaches that work at the local level and meet the needs of people without risk to public safety or nuisance.

“The Flying High Challenge asks cities to start with a blank piece of paper and design how drones could be used in ways that bring genuine public benefit, without unacceptable costs.”

Andrew Tyrer, Robotics Challenge Director, Industrial Strategy Research Fund (Innovate UK), explains how, by 2025, these technologies will have an impact on global markets of between $7.1 and $13.1 trillion p.a [1], “Robotics and Artificial Intelligence have the potential to revolutionise how we live our lives, from making them more productive and safer, to improving quality of life.  They could transform our public services and infrastructure, and hugely benefit society.  The  Government, via the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund, has recognised the importance of supporting the UK Robotics and Artificial Intelligence Sector by committing £93m of investment to accelerate technology and services in extreme and challenging environments. Drones are very much a part of the solution to these challenges and Innovate UK is pleased to be working in partnership with Nesta to deliver this vitally important challenge.”

Cities will keep an open mind as they explore the potential use of drones, which could include support for:

  • Emergency health services such as rapid organ or blood transport
  • Risk assessment and maintenance of bridges and critical infrastructure
  • Working in extreme and hazardous environments such as fires and floods
  • Search and rescue assistance for police and emergency services
  • Traffic monitoring
  • Environmental and pollution monitoring
  • Logistics and delivery

The Flying High Challenge will work with cities with an interest and commitment to exploring and shaping drone technology in a way that meets the needs of local people and the future city they want to live in. Cities, local authorities, combined authorities, Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) or similar local government entities can register their interest in taking part at