The UK’s drone economy is starting to take off, with ever more businesses using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in their work. Britain’s drone legislation is already setting standards around the world, but more could be done on a policy level to enable businesses to utilise drones, say the authors of a new report, who believe the government should appoint a ‘minister for drones’ to advocate for the technology at Whitehall.
The new report, Digitising the Skies, published by the Entrepreneurs Network think tank, also says that a £10m government investment to ensure all aircraft in UK airspace are visible to drones could make it easier to fly UAVs in urban areas, unlocking the potential for drone deliveries, a long-mooted use case for the aircraft. Experts are divided on whether such deliveries will ever come to fruition, but say advances in technology and regulation are making it easier for companies to deploy drones.
Which UK business sectors are embracing drones?
Drones have the potential to add £42bn to Britain’s GDP by 2030, according to accountancy firm PwC, while helping businesses save £16bn. There could be environmental benefits, too, with a new study from Cranfield University finding that making deliveries by drone, instead of light commercial vehicles, could reduce CO2 emissions by up to 46%.
These benefits, coupled with falling prices and the increased technological capabilities of UAVs, have driven business enthusiasm for drones, says Dr John Woods, a senior lecturer in the School of Computer Science and Electronic Engineering at Essex University and long-time drone enthusiast.
This rapid increase in the affordability of drones is due in large part to China's DJI, the market-leading commercial drone maker, Woods says. "Right up until 2012–14 you were having to build your own proprietary technology," he tells Tech Monitor. "Then DJI came along with its products and suddenly you could buy a tool to help you do your job out of the box for £1,500."
DJI's latest model comes with an in-built infrared camera, which Woods says has unlocked a wider range of use cases. "Thermal infrared has really moved things on in the past 12–18 months," he says. "So in agriculture you can use a drone to see what's going on underground, be that a structure or an invasive crop, and take action as appropriate. We're also seeing a lot of activity in the construction and housing around inspection, doing reports on hot and cold spots in houses and detecting leaking pipes."
Advances in battery technology have also lifted the viability of drones, says Ben Crundwell, head of electronics at tech consultancy Cambridge Design Partnership. "Lithium batteries are light enough to make a drone make sense, as opposed to an acid battery, which is really heavy and lifting it off the ground is a non-starter."
Another game-changer has been the availability of more advanced sensors, Crundwell explains. "Being able to combine nine-axis gyroscopes, accelerometers and magnetometers into a single chip means you can make a circuit board with one or two components and a battery, and that's enough to make something that can fly. This is what's allowed the manufacturers from the Far East to flood the market with cheap drones."
How regulation can aid the UK drone economy
Drone-powered deliveries are one of the most high-profile – and complex – use cases for UAVs, with flying over highly populated areas often prompting concerns over safety, privacy and the noise that would be generated. The UK looked set to be central to this emerging industry when, in 2016, Amazon announced its Prime Air UK division would spearhead the company's attempts to develop delivery drones. It opened a new R&D centre and hired a large team to work on Prime Air, releasing a series of videos showing test flights from prototype delivery drones.
But five years on, Prime Air UK has been grounded. In August, Wired reported that the programme had been heavily scaled back, with over 100 staff losing their jobs (Amazon confirmed an unspecified number of team members had been made redundant). Work on Prime Air is continuing in other parts of the world.
But despite its failure, Prime Air has set the UK up as an ideal testbed for drone technology, says Crundwell. Under lobbying from Amazon, UK airspace regulator the Civil Aviation Authority fast-tracked a series of regulations making it easier to test drones. This, combined with rule changes made in the wake of the drone attacks on Gatwick Airport in 2018, have put the UK at the forefront of drone legislation.
"It's a shame Amazon scaled back its programme, but from a regulatory perspective, the company helped push through a load of legislation that can potentially make the UK a hotspot for companies wanting to come and look into these technologies," Crundwell says. "We're well aligned with the European Union in this area, and you're seeing a lot of other countries fall into line with the kind of legislation we have in terms of the checks and balances on who can fly a drone and how."
It's a shame Amazon scaled back its programme, but from a regulatory perspective, the company helped push through a load of legislation that can potentially make the UK a hotspot.
Ben Crundwell, Cambridge Design Partnership
Dumitriu believes delivery drones remain a realistic prospect, but says work needs to be done at a political level to enable their development. He and co-authors argue that the government funding for "electronic conspicuity" – whereby aircraft emit an electronic signal to alert drones to their presence – could go some way to making the airspace over built-up areas safer.
At present, recreational aircraft are not required to be electronically conspicuous, and pilots have to bear the cost themselves. Installing on electronic conspicuity equipment on all recreational aircraft would cost the government £10m, the report says, but could enable much larger economic benefits. "It's a real no-brainer in our view," says Dumitriu. "If you meet this challenge, you can start rolling out the testing of unmanned traffic management systems, which can police an airspace containing UAVs."
Woods is less convinced that drones will ever be ready to make deliveries in urban areas, citing concerns over the prospect of the drones themselves, as well as their cargo, being targeted by thieves. "There's also the safety aspect," he adds. "The drones themselves are really reliable, but the batteries aren't. They can fail at any time and then the drone just falls out of the sky."
Regardless of whether drone deliveries ever become a reality, Dumitriu argues that a "minister for drones" is needed to ensure that the UK can reap the benefits of the growth of the drone economy and take advantage of its expertise in this area. "At the moment there is a minister who is kind of responsible for this," he says, referring to Trudy Harrison MP, parliamentary under secretary of state at the Department for Transport. "But they also have net zero and the future of transport in their portfolio. You need someone to drive the agenda. To have a dedicated drone minister would be a real statement of intent to drone entrepreneurs in other parts of the world that the UK is serious about this kind of technology."
For businesses wishing to deploy drones in the near future, advances in control systems have made the aircraft much easier to operator for the lay person, says Crundwell. "Nowadays if you let go of a drone's controller, it will stay perfectly still," he says. "That means the days where you needed hundreds of hours of practice before you started flying are gone. The cost and time associated with training has dropped considerably."
At the same time, the emergence of companies offering UAVs on a consumption basis could be an appealing prospect, says Stewart Marsh, head of aerospace at Cambridge Consultants, a tech consultancy that is part of Capgemini. "You've got companies that offer drone-as-a-service, a full bespoke package where they do delivery, surveying, data collection and testing which they offer as a complete service to people. The jury is still out on which way the industry will go, but I suspect the as-a-service model will the one which survives because of the economies of scale it offers."