Five cities and districts spanning the country will be the first to design how drone technology could be used to support their local needs. The announcement follows an open call in November, where over a third of UK cities bid for a place on the Flying High Challenge, run by Nesta’s Challenge Prize Centre in partnership with Innovate UK.
Bradford, London, Preston, Southampton and the West Midlands will now work with the Flying High team over the next five months to look at how drones could be used in their communities. From using drones to support public services to the commercial opportunities that might exist, they’ll explore the public attitudes, environmental impact, logistics and safety of drones operating in complex urban environments.
Each city boasts credentials in areas from aerospace to robotics and autonomous vehicles, and many have unique approaches to public engagement and local economic development, making them exceptionally well placed to deliver on both the technical and societal aspects of the programme.
- Bradford: Some of the earliest drone testing happened in Bradford, a district with a population of over half a million across an area that is two thirds rural and includes densely populated urban areas, moorland, farmland and woodland. It’ll be looking at how drones can support district priorities such as disaster response, digital health, surveying and community safety.
- London: The capital has the busiest and most heavily regulated airspace in the UK, and the Flying High Challenge will allow the city to have serious conversations about if, how and where drones could safely be used in future for the benefit of the city. London has already experienced initial use of drones for safer infrastructure inspections and helping the capital’s emergency services, and now needs to identify what steps are needed to ensure the use of drones benefits the city and support its ‘Healthy Streets’ approach for London’s future.
- Preston: The main urban centre in a wider Lancashire city region that is the location of the largest cluster of aerospace activity in the UK. The city is at the forefront of identifying and developing civic drone applications, and is home to the ‘Civic Drone Centre’ – established by the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) in 2014 to bring together local authorities, communities and businesses to support novel drone solutions. Drones are already being used in Preston in inspections of utilities and council buildings, supporting fire and rescue services and to assist the Environment Agency. Through the Flying High Challenge, the city council, in partnership with UCLan, will be exploring other areas of city need where drones could play a role, including flood management, assisting police helicopters, and upgrading road networks. The city is developing an approach to local economic development known as the ‘Preston Model’ that seeks to ensure local economic, social and environmental benefits are at the forefront of new developments.
- Southampton: One of the UK’s major port cities, a global gateway and regional transport hub. Southampton City Council has a vision to accelerate the safe delivery of public services and commercial activity using remotely piloted and autonomous drone systems, notably around port safety, blue light services and offshore logistics. The council is working in collaboration with the University of Southampton, which has very strong drone and autonomous systems expertise as the leader of a large consortium project, CASCADE, looking at implementation of drones in civil airspace. Southampton University also participates in the EPSRC Future Cities project from a drone perspective; and the Airstart project with the Royal National Lifeboat Institute (RNLI) investigating safe routine operation of small UAS’ Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS).
- West Midlands: A large region and strategic centre for the country encompassing the cities of Birmingham, Coventry and Wolverhampton. The West Midlands boasts two international airports, several universities, multiple collaborating local authorities and 2.8 million residents. The region is interested in UAV use cases surrounding the world class ‘UK City of Culture 2021’ and Commonwealth Games events. Innovative R&D across the region offers other potential areas of synergy with Flying High, including the construction of a cutting-edge testbed for Connected and Autonomous Vehicles. The West Midlands brings a diverse and expansive consortium which is united by the ambition to realise drone use, not just as a strategic exercise, but a deliverable reality, hoping to strike the necessary balance between ambition and regulation.
Nishita Dewan, Programme Lead for the Flying High Challenge, explained: “The entries to the Flying High Challenge showed the huge appetite from cities across the UK to develop models for drones that work for their people and communities. We saw diverse and creative uses for drones such as boosting wifi and helping find lost children at the seaside, to the support for key public services such as delivering AEDs and inspecting critical infrastructure.
“Cities represent an important medium, through which we can understand the public’s needs, both for Flying High and our partners, BEIS, CAA and the DfT. We want to co-create a solution that understands the needs of local people and the future city they want to live in.
“In the subsequent phases of the Flying High Challenge, the five cities that have been selected will become testbeds for future demonstrations.”
Andrew Carter, Chief Executive of the think tank Centre for Cities, commented: “The increasing use of drones and other new technology will bring huge changes to UK cities in the coming years, and places which adapt and take advantage of these developments will have a better chance of prospering in future.
“The Flying High Challenge is a great opportunity to examine how different cities can use drones to address the distinct challenges and opportunities they face. It will offer valuable lessons for places across the country on how we can new technology to strengthen local economies and make our cities better places to live and work.”
A recent article on Digital by Default News suggested that drones are amongst the seven digital trends the public sector needs to be aware of in 2018.