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Drone alone 2 - the unexpected benefits

Chris Middleton Profile picture for user cmiddleton December 20, 2019
Some unusual perspectives on drones in the second of two reports from the Westminster eForum conference on regulation and airspace management.

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Drones are an economic opportunity. In 2018, PwC published a report called Skies Without Limits: Drones Taking the UK’s Economy to New Heights. In it, the professional services giant predicted that by 2030 there would be a £42 billion increase in UK GDP and £16 billion in net savings from 76,000 commercial drones operating in the nation’s skies, generating 628,000 new jobs.

The effects of Brexit were not factored into those calculations (a wise decision), but the figures remain extraordinary – or perhaps implausible, because they suggest that each drone will supposedly generate over £550,000 a year, save over £210,500, and create eight jobs. Just divide the predicted economic uptick and jobs by the number of drones and see for yourself.

Of course, the real-world maths are never as straightforward as that, which is why making 10-year predictions that everyone will have forgotten by 2030 is both a mug’s game and a nice little earner for consultants and analysts. Yet the point of these reports has more to do with cumulative impact, directional thinking, and focusing the mind on new opportunities. They’re playing the inspiration game, selling a mindset and a strategic roadmap.

Nevertheless, PwC’s Elaine Whyte, Director of Technology and Investments and UK Drones Leader, stood by the statistics when she spoke at a Westminster eForum event last week on the commercial impact of drones in the UK – a speech that zeroed in on what she called the ‘three Cs’ of the sector: commercialisation, complexity, and coordinated action. She said:

Regulation needs to expand, regulators need to have the confidence to be able to continually open up the skies and eventually get to the panacea that we all agree is BVLOS [beyond visual line of sight] flying.

Commercial hotspots

So is it a panacea? The subtext of PwC’s research was to stress the numerous commercial applications of unmanned aerial vehicles or systems (UAVs or UASs). Among these are providing airborne platforms for sensors and other tools to help transform a huge variety of industries, such as: agriculture; the maintenance of buildings, bridges, power lines, and roads; the inspection and repair of offshore installations; blue-light services and search and rescue; transport and logistics; surveillance and mapping; environmental and weather monitoring; nuclear decommissioning, and many more – including security and defence.

Want to inspect and repair a bridge or old building in a crowded city centre? Instead of spending weeks closing roads, putting up expensive scaffolding, and asking engineers to climb ladders, just send up specialist drones. Kerching! A seemingly faster, safer, more efficient, less obtrusive alternative.

According to PwC, the GDP uplift from drones in construction and manufacturing alone could be £8.6 billion, with a further £11.4 billion for the public sector and £7.7 billion in wholesale, retail trade, and food services. Those predicted increases will come from cost reductions, efficiency improvements, and a much-needed boost to the UK’s productivity, which has been flatlining since the 2008-09 recession.

Factor in the use of underground, undersea, or seaborne drones/robots in the deep mining, electricity, oil, and gas sectors, and the promised economic benefits begin to seem more plausible.

But to achieve all this demands a new convergence of technology, societal acceptance, and regulation – a tall order, as I explored in my separate diginomica report from the eForum. At the collision point – perhaps not the best term – of these competing forces will be the Civil Aviation Authority, whose Head of Unmanned Aircraft Systems, Sophie-Louise O’Sullivan, also spoke at the event.

The appetite for innovation in the commercial use of drones is increasing all the time, she said, and autonomous and BVLOS operations (where operators can no longer see their drones themselves) will be the critical factor. But there are big challenges ahead in enabling this to happen:

You can fly BVLOS today, but the issue is you have to find a way to mitigate the danger to other airspace users. And the most common way of doing that is the creation of a Temporary Danger Area [TDA] and the issue of a NOTAM [a notice to airmen of hazards en route to their destination].

But the problem with a TDA is you have to consult on it and it will last for 90 days. It’s good safety mitigation, but it’s temporary, it doesn’t work [for new commercial applications of drones] as it’s all based on exemptions. So for us to move forward in this space, we need to find a way to integrate [different types of flights] without using airspace contracts and TDAs. [...] You can’t populate the whole of the UK with Temporary Danger Areas.

Indeed. But who is already innovating in the drone space, despite these challenges? At least two of the answers from the eForum were unexpected and cast light on a new type of data-driven economy that is emerging on the back of drones and other new technologies, such as sensors, artificial intelligence, machine learning, and big data analytics.

Flocking hell?

Flock is a London-based, venture capital-backed insure-tech startup specialising in data-driven drone insurance. It describes itself as blending academia, industry experience, and engineering. The company was set up to quantify drone flight risk in real time via a proprietary risk intelligence engine and app.

The system ingests reams of unstructured data about a drone flight and outputs quantified risk – and prices insurance accordingly. Flock has developed a range of products for different types of user, right up to enterprise fleet operators.

According to Tommy Wilson, Drone Partnerships Manager at the company, one of the drone sector’s biggest challenges is that unlike other insurance verticals such as manned aviation, maritime, and automotive, there aren’t decades of data about risk or profit and loss ratios. Yet drones need to be integrated safely today with people, cities, transport networks, physical infrastructure (such as masts and power lines), the countryside, and other airspace users, including airliners, light aircraft, helicopters, and hang gliders – in all kinds of weather conditions.

The solution? To gather as much flight and environmental data as possible and become smarter every day – and autonomous road vehicles may have to follow a similar insurance path. However, the interesting output of quantifying risk in real time via an app is that it feeds directly back into drone operators’ behaviour and flight plans, in order to keep risk low. Put simply, Flock’s data shows that operators change their flight parameters – in real time – to minimise the insurance costs. He said:

On average when they get up there they will change their parameters 15 times, and that could be takeoff time, location of the flight, or just moving that radius a little bit to take out some risk factors. So this is really proof that from a risk intelligence perspective, if we put data tools into the hands of end users, they create an effect. An operator wants risk mitigation and is looking for a cheaper flight, so we're incentivising that behaviour. [...] We help our customers do incredible things, because we’re ultimately an enabler for companies’ drone operations.”

Wilson claimed that Flock has contracts in place with companies that are trialling BVLOS deliveries and search and rescue operations, and even operators working with hospitals and an NHS Trust – drones could be used to deliver blood supplies, essential medicines, and even organs for transplant.

But is Flock’s apparently brilliant business model going to create a better, safer world for people on the ground, as well as in the air? Not necessarily, as there is an obvious flaw in the company’s thinking.

Robinson demonstrated the system using data gathered from a real drone flight over central London, which showed the machine moving away from densely populated areas and a rail terminus to fly over green spaces, such as Hampstead Heath, in order to keep the insurance cost down. Fast forward to PwC’s vision of 2030, and the implication of this emergent behaviour may be the skies over parkland, green spaces, and other areas of natural beauty being filled with drones, because it is cheaper for them to fly there.

This is a serious point. With delivery drones, air taxis, and other forms of autonomous urban transport promising to make life in our crowded cities better, more efficient, and greener, would thousands of noisy rotorcraft in the skies above Central Park, Hyde Park, and our other green corridors really be an improvement – thanks to cheaper insurance premiums?

Don’t be surprised if landowners start shooting drones out of the sky rather than grouse and pheasants – but joking aside, anti-drone crimes of every kind seem inevitable in such a future. Logically, some areas – probably wealthy ones – will eventually be designated as no-fly zones for drone operators because of the noise nuisance and visual impact, which will force them back into the packed airspace above urban centres. The knock-on effects of that would be complex and fraught with cultural dangers.

The point is this: the future may look simple once the regulatory and technical challenges of commercial drones have been overcome; but the reality will be messy. Indeed, the benefits of unmanned technologies will have to be overwhelming for the quality of life objections to seem unimportant. In some cases, it is far from clear that they are overwhelming – beyond the ability for some private enterprises to cut costs and increase profits, and for some activities to become smarter, less wasteful, and more efficient.

It’s a fair cop

Another intriguing presentation of drone technology at the eForum came from the police. Think of drones in law enforcement and the first images that come to mind are perhaps of intrusive surveillance and a concomitant risk to civil liberties – not helped by decades of dystopian sci-fi.

But policing is also a community activity and in large rural areas that have been affected by cuts in budgets and police numbers since the financial crash, drones can help fill the gap in terms of how forces respond to events in real time. Lincolnshire is one such area in the UK, and Special Sergeant Kevin Taylor is one of a small number of officers with a new type of job: he’s Chief Pilot of the Lincolnshire Police Drone Unit.

Sergeant Taylor gave an impressive demonstration using real footage from remote drones fitted with cameras, heat sensors, and other equipment in Lincolnshire. The presentation included: safely monitoring the recovery of a chemical weapon from a lake; mapping crowd dynamics after violent confrontations at a football match, allowing officers to keep fans safe; spotting an escaped criminal in fields at night; detecting a huge indoor cannabis farm from its heat signature; finding stolen agricultural equipment that had been hidden at ground level; and locating two people who had walked, seriously injured, into fields after nighttime car accidents – in one case, the drone used heat sensors to find the injured man in a ditch when he was invisible to officers on the ground. Those lives were saved.

Taylor described the project as providing an “additional capability that these drones bring to this experimental policing business”.

My take

There is no doubting drones’ enormous potential in the years ahead, or the considerable innovation, new business models, and additional capabilities that come from putting sensors – and humans – in the sky, either autonomously or via BVLOS operations.

But as I said in my previous report, it is essential that these fast-expanding areas are approached from a human-need standpoint, rather than being driven by technology’s worst ‘because it’s there’ aspects. And it is vital that they are assessed for their real-world benefits and impacts.

And perhaps most of all, it is important that consultants and analysts think much deeper and engage in detailed thought experiments about the future, rather than merely tot up the economic gains. Critical thinking is already thin on the ground. In this new economy, in cannot be just as thin in the air.

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