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March 23, 2023

UK government accused of wasting taxpayer cash on ‘dead-end’ drone projects

A leading industry expert says R&D spending on UAVs needs a radical rethink so the country can reap commercial benefits.

By Sophia Waterfield

The UK government lacks a strategy for drone innovation and has funded “dead-end” projects which waste taxpayer cash, according to an industry expert. The comments from the chairman of the British Standards Institution (BSI) committee on drone and counter-drone standards come after Prime Minister Rishi Sunak laid out his ambitions for the UK to be a technology superpower.

Drones flying off into sunset.
Trials of drones in public services have been on the increase, but that’s all they’ll stay according to expert Robert Garbett. (Photo by Drone Major Limited)

Robert Garbett, who is also the founder and chief executive of Drone Major Group Limited and head of the UK delegation of the International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO) Committee for drone safety standards, told Tech Monitor that the government’s lack of clear vision for drone commercialisation is costing the country billions of pounds. He has called on the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology (DSIT) to take action and correct the flaws within the innovation funding strategy.  

The UK Innovation Strategy was published in July 2021 by the former Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS). It set out the government’s vision to make the UK a global hub for innovation by 2035.

The policy paper committed to increasing UK R&D spending to £20bn per year by 2024, reaching 2.4% of GDP by 2027. It also asked Innovate UK and British Business Bank to remove the complexities of funding by establishing an online finance and innovation hub. However, Garbett argues that the strategy for funding implemented by BEIS was on “a road to nowhere, especially for drones”. 

UK government not commercialising drone technology successfully

The UK has seen an increase in drone trials, especially within the public sector, helping to deliver services to rural areas. However, Garbett says these pilots are doomed to fail commercially. 

He argues that the fund-granting process usually “omits any analysis” of what the market needs. As a result, he says the UK spends and often wastes huge sums of taxpayers’ money developing “R&D solutions leading to dead ends

In the case of drones, Garbett says that despite the government spending hundreds of millions on drone testing and trialling, meaningful commercialisation is moving at a snail’s pace. 

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“There is no doubt that, if used correctly, R&D funding is extremely important to the development and deployment of an emerging technology,” Garbett says. 

“However, in the absence of a mature commercial drone industry with specific operational needs, there is a danger that technologies or capabilities are researched to satisfy ‘wishful thinking’ rather than realistic long-term advances for the UK economy.”

He also argues that this “aimless approach” can be seen with the amounts of funding provided to explore the “over-hyped delivery of small packages by small unmanned air systems.” Garbett explains that he does not see this as “commercially viable, safe or socially acceptable”. 

“In essence, we are spending lots of taxpayers’ money on things which are not, and may never be, required, and – in many cases – have been tried many times before,” he said.

The emergence of a self-perpetuating industry

According to GovGrant, a company that helps businesses access public funding, in the past 18 years, £293m of Innovate UK funding (5% of the total) was committed to 2,270 companies that have since dissolved. 

A further £1.05bn (18% of Innovate UK’s funding to commercial entities) was injected into 2,630 companies which had been identified as being at high risk of dissolution. A further £206m (6% of the total funding for commercial entities) remained unpaid once the project is complete. 

“Many of the ‘innovation funding’ organisations that distribute much of this funding are private companies whose entire business is based on bidding for and expending Government money,” says Garbett. 

“This has resulted in the emergence of a self-perpetuating industry focused almost entirely on handing out taxpayers’ money, without a proper strategy for how to bring important emerging technology to market.”

A strategy for commercialisation needs to be created

To solve the issues, the drone company CEO says that DSIT needs to create a “commercialisation programme with a clear focus.” 

“What’s needed is […] to help attract investment targeted at delivering commercially viable services to industry,” he explains. “This would not only require far less public funding, but it would also help highlight specific research and development requirements.” 

Garbett adds that the R&D initiatives could then be funded to optimise the UK economy, resulting in what he describes as tangible socio-economic benefits. This includes investment growth, job creation, and return on investment for the taxpayer which could be “to the order of billions.”

Tech Monitor has contacted the Department for Business and Trade for comment but had not received a response at the time of publication.

Read more: The UK has spent £1bn on drones to prevent migrant crossings

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