Commercial and recreational drone use in the UK Contents

7Vision for the future

Purpose of the chapter

150.This Chapter sets out the need for the Government to develop a coherent strategy for the integration of drones into society in order to maximise the opportunities offered by drones and to mitigate the risks posed by drones.

Vision and international comparisons

151.As mentioned in Chapter 3, we heard that the use of drones in commercial business, humanitarian aid and in the airspace could have considerable economic benefits for society. Despite this, we also heard that much of the action that the Government has so far taken to ensure the safe and successful integration of drones into the airspace was reactive, such as the fitting of electronic safety features and registration. When we asked the then Minister if there was a central, coordinating strategy for the vision of drones in society, she explained “we have a vision and it is very clear what the Government’s vision is.” However, when asked “Is it stated anywhere?” she responded, “Not as such.”226

152.We received evidence from PwC that that the UK needed a central co-ordinator and a strategy to enable the UK to make the most of the growing drone industry. Elaine Whyte, representing PwC, told us:

I would like to see a vision of where we want to go and some guiding principles to deliver that vision […] There needs to be a co-ordinating authority, and that would fall to the Government. Within that vision, we need some guiding principles.227

Similarly, Tris Dyson, representing Nesta, explained that there was a need for a co-ordinated approach: “We need a more co-ordinated and iterative approach, and we need a champion, which is perhaps difficult, given that there is a lot of political transition at the moment. That is needed to drive this forward.”228

153.We also heard evidence that the UK was somewhat behind other countries with regard to drone policy. For example, Mr Adrian Belcher explained that the UK needed to “join other countries with safety research” and the then Minister also admitted that the UK was potentially behind other countries in terms of the deployment of counter-UAV technology.229 Further, Tris Dyson from Nesta explained that the UK was considerably behind countries such as Finland, Australia and Switzerland, who had already developed Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) operations: “at present, that is happening outside the UK. That is the disappointing thing. A lot of the testing development is happening in cities in the US.”230

154.However, Elaine Whyte from PwC explained that she thought the UK was taking action to ensure the integration of future drone technology, as demonstrated by Operation Zenith.231 She presented further examples to us of the UK doing much in the way of innovation for drone technology, but explained that it simply was not well documented:

What we need to achieve potentially in this country is more transparency and more sharing of what we are achieving in all those examples. I reflect on what we have achieved with CCAV, the centre for autonomous vehicles. That is one centre of excellence bringing together an understanding of the research and investment that is taking place.232

155.We recognise that drone technology is moving at pace, carrying with it a multitude of opportunities and risks. The Government needs to act to ensure that it can stay ahead of the curve in the future. The Government should produce a White Paper by Summer 2020 that outlines the vision for how drones will be integrated into UK communities over the coming years. At a minimum, the White Paper should cover the role of registration, regulation, maximising the opportunities, minimising the risks, drone safety education and the technology required in order to implement their vision of drone integration into society in the next 20 years. The document should also set out a clear roadmap that outlines the steps that the Government and other agencies will take to achieve this future vision.

Universities and testing

156.As explained in detail at Annex 1, we attended the Aerial Robotics Lab at Imperial College as part of our inquiry. Dr Mirko Kovac, Director of the Lab, explained that significant work on drone innovation and development was taking place at universities across the UK. However, he also raised concerns that universities were in a ‘grey area’ when it came to being classified as either recreational or commercial drone users in the eyes of the Civil Aviation Authority. As such, he explained that there was confusion over regulations that govern these areas, and that this impinged upon universities ability to test new technologies.

157.Further, Liverpool John Moores University agreed that universities played a key role in “delivering successful teaching and research programmes on drones”, but that this was reliant on the “flexibility given by the CAA to relaxing restrictions if a sufficiently thorough safety case can be made”.233 They went on to explain that there was, however, a lack of “dedicated funding streams for drone technology”, meaning that a number of other countries were overtaking the UK.234

158.The Government should open a dialogue with UK universities working on drones to discuss how they might best be classified and funded to ensure that the requirement to register as commercial operators does not hamper innovation and development of the industry. A comprehensive and clear regime should be established to facilitate academic development work no later than Summer 2020.

159.Dr Mirko Kovac also told us that the UK needed to create more ‘test bed’ environments in which drone technologies could be tested. This call was echoed by other witnesses, for example Julia Jiggins, Head of Civil Avionics at Thales explained:

The big thing about moving from visual line of sight to beyond visual line of sight is the fact that you increase the range significantly. Therefore, you need to integrate more technology, and you are getting to the limit of the technology, particularly on battery life and durability. How a drone safely lands is a key technology at the moment, and a limiting factor. We are building the corridors and we need more safe test areas in the UK.235

Further, Elaine Whyte, UK Drones Lead at PwC, stated that:

In the UK, the challenge will be how we work in an urban environment, and we have heard the complexities involved there. The important thing is to get the test and evaluation environment right so that we can learn and share that learning and try to grow together at the right pace.236

160.Technological advancement is needed for drones to be utilised successfully and with optimal results for society. The Government should set out how it intends to provide support and funding to current testbeds at universities and whether there is an appetite to create more testbeds. It should announce its plans and funding expectations by the end of 2019.

Public perception

161.We received evidence relating to the importance of improving the public’s perception of drone technology. Nesta explained that “in addition to technical and regulatory barriers to developing an urban drone system, public acceptance will be key if drones are to integrate into city life”.237 Many other witnesses, including recreational drone users, acknowledged the societal resistance to drone use in the UK: “We need the public to trust drone users know the rules and know what they’re doing rather than instantly get their backs up..”238 PwC also explained that societal acceptance was an essential step to “unlock the full potential of drones.”239 Further, research from PwC showed that public perception was a key barrier to effective drone use in the UK:

Less than a third of the public, (31%) feel positively towards drones, while more than two thirds are concerned about the potential use of drones for criminal purposes. This contrasts with 56% of business leaders who are positive about drones and their benefits. Including those already using drones in their business this rises to 83%.240

162.Both Nesta and the Department for Transport argued that increasing levels of awareness amongst the general public would play a critical role in changing public perception.241 They demonstrated that positive shifts in perception occurred when individuals learned more about drones and their current and potential applications. The Department for Transport suggested that raising public awareness and specifically “focusing on the benefits to citizens and society” would build trust in the drone industry.242

163.There is a notable distrust towards drones among the general public that needs addressing if the UK is to maximise the opportunities presented by drones. The Government should act to improve public perception and awareness of drones by launching a public awareness campaign, no later than Summer 2020, that highlights the opportunities presented by drones and informs the public on the reality of the risks posed by drones. This issue should also be addressed in the White Paper that we have called for in this Report.

229 Mr Adrian Belcher (RDU0056) para 6; Q450

233 Liverpool John Moores University (RDU0079) p 3

234 Ibid

238 Mr Jacques Le Roux (RDU0030)

241 Nesta, ‘Flying High: The future of drone technology in UK cities‘ (July 2018); Department for Transport (RDU0103) para 5

242 Department for Transport (RDU0103) paras 23 - 27

Published: 11 October 2019