Drones and the city of the future

Nesta’s Flying High Challenge is working with five UK cities to explore the use of drones in the delivery of public services. PublicTechnology talks to programme manager Nishita Dewan to find out more


Credit: David Parry/PA Wire​

The results of a quick internet search for news stories about drones speaks to the slight unease many members of the public seem to feel about the miniature flying machines. 

‘What can locals do about nuisance drones?’, the topmost headline asks, while the second reveals that ‘workers are irked by watching drones’. One story a little further down even promises to lift the lid on how a well-known tech company is working on software that could help apprehend ‘rogue drones’.

But, looking at the results as a whole, such scare stories appear to have become the minority. 

Elsewhere are a number of examples of unmanned aerial vehicles being put to use by businesses wishing to improve customer service, or public-sector entities trying to better serve citizens. This includes details of drones delivering medical supplies, investigating crime scenes containing toxic material, monitoring building sites – and even delivering burritos.

The recently launched Flying High Challenge is a project dedicated to looking at what role drones can play in solving the challenges faced by cities, and the people, businesses, and public-services providers that inhabit them. Five UK cities and regions – Bradford, Preston, Southampton, the West Midlands, and London – have been selected to take part in the programme.

Each participating city will work on exploring one use case of drone technology.

The programme has picked out 13 examples of key use cases of drones that cities may wish to consider. These are: monitoring air pollution; mapping fires; exploring hazardous environments; inspecting large infrastructure; upgrading road networks; delivering goods; transporting people; boosting mobile networks; managing marine ports; overseeing construction sites; responding to traffic accidents; maintaining utilities; and supplying hospitals.

Flying High Challenge programme manager Nishita Dewan tells PublicTechnology that the scheme does not intend to serve merely as a cheerleader for drones, but will be led by the needs and challenges of cities and their citizens.

“We are working with cities to identify their problems, and we do not want to be prescriptive,” she says. “We want to work with cities to co-create solutions where drones can serve as a means to solve those problems.”

She adds: “Examples are already out there – the Los Angeles Fire Department is using drones to monitor the spread of fires, and in Australia they are using drones to help people in distress in the sea. We want to find out what is the opportunity to leverage technology that is already out there.”

One in three
Proportion of UK cities that applied to take part in the Flying High Challenge

Weight threshold at which drone ownership and use will be regulated, under draft government legislation

Maximum height at which consumers should fly their drones, according to the Civil Aviation Authority

1.5 million 
Number of drones the CAA believed could be added to UK airspace over the Christmas period

Approximate funding provided to the Flying High Challenge by Innovate UK and Nesta, to which each city is expected to add about £50,000

The scheme has been backed by the government’s arm’s-length agency for technology funding Innovate UK, which has boosted Nesta’s own investment to create a total funding pot of £600,000. This is expected to be further bolstered by additional backing of about £50,000 from each of the participating cities.

In addition to Nesta and Innovate UK, the Department for Transport and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy are both stakeholders in the programme, as is the Civil Aviation Authority. Cranfield University and NATS – the UK’s main provider of air-traffic control services – are also involved in the project. 

About one in three cities in the UK applied to take part in the Flying High Challenge. The five-strong line-up was chosen with a view to having as broad a mix as possible in terms of the cities’ size, population, geographic location, and existing transport links – including participants both with and without an airport. London also allows the programme to explore if and how drones can be used in what is the most crowded airspace on the planet.

The designated use case to be explored in each city will be decided upon in about a week’s time.

Thereafter the first phase of the programme will run until June. After which Dewan hopes that the results of the research conducted will attract further funding to progress the ideas generated into practical testing – which could take place at the runway located at Cranfield University.

“This first phase of the project is around research and design. [At the end of] this phase our objective is to gauge interest – we are hoping that there is enough to help those use cases become demonstrations in test environments,” she says. “We also want to harness the traction that we have by having had over a third of UK cities apply. We are working closely with five partners, but we had so many strong applications – from Oxford, Cambridge, Bristol [and others]. We are looking at how can we harness the learnings of the project and scale it to those other cities.”

If funding allows, the scheme – which has a team of about 15 people – may also consider working with a second cohort of cities, she says.

Safety framework
To apply to take part in the Flying High Challenge, each city had to form a consortium. The lead partners of the five successful applicants are Bradford Metropolitan District Council, Transport for London, the University of Central Lancashire in Preston, Southampton City Council, and Transport for West Midlands. 

Dewan says that, in each case, the programme is working with four defined sets of stakeholders: central government; academia; local authorities; and industry.

In the latter case the project is engaged with companies of all sizes.

“We are speaking to industry to understand where is the opportunity [for using drones], and where are the barriers,” she says. “You have the large existing players, such as Amazon or Google’s Project Wing, but there is a growing opportunity for all the small start-ups that are coming up.”

In addition to working on developing the five use cases, the Flying High Challenge will also study two of the biggest potential challenges to the widespread use of drones: public sentiment; and safety.

“There is a negative public sentiment around drones and how they can be used,” Dewan says. “One of the barriers that we are trying to address is to better understand their areas of concern.”

She adds that the project will also call on the insight of commercial pilots and other experts to “develop a framework for the technical study” of the safety of drones.

We are working with cities to identify their problem, and we do not want to be prescriptive – we want to work with them to co-create solutions where drones can serve as a means to solve those problems

This safety framework will be broken into two categories: harm; and its causes.

It will include three types of harm: injury caused in the air; injury caused on the ground; and damage to infrastructure. It will encompass five causes of such harm: human error; technical issues with drones; issues with flight paths; issues with external support systems; and adverse operating conditions, such as weather.

“We will focus on safety for all of the use cases, and we will go into what are the technical requirements of each,” Dewan adds.

If the project attracts the requisite funding to continue into the second half of 2018 and beyond, the programme manager hopes to attract more and more support from both senior figures in each city and the frontline delivery professionals who may be interacting with drones.

She says: “In a year’s time, it would be nice to have the mayors championing this project, but also the people on the ground – such as the police, and the fire service. Once we have selected the use cases, we will be working closely with those users.”

Look out on PublicTechnology in the coming days for details of the five selected use cases, and follow the progress of the Flying High Challenge over the months to come.


Find out more at flyinghighchallenge.org


Sam Trendall

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