Drone alone? Overcoming UK challenges in the UAV sector

Profile picture for user cmiddleton By Chris Middleton June 3, 2019
Chris Middleton explains how whilst there is huge potential for the drone industry in the UK, government regulation, counter-drone tech and a safety first approach all need considering. 

Image of a flying drone

In the public’s mind, drones have become synonymous with nuisance, security risks, and terrorism, thanks to media coverage that’s relentlessly negative – not least concerning the incident last December, when London’s Gatwick Airport was closed for two days after a drone was reported flying near the runway. While the police still describe that incident as an ‘attack’, no suspect has ever been charged and the precise nature of the events remains a mystery.

Yet despite the inconvenience of 1,000 cancelled or delayed flights at Gatwick on that occasion, drones – or more accurately Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) or Systems (UASs) – should not be seen as yet another threat to public safety alongside those job-stealing robots, Terminators, and malignant AIs that the mainstream media obsesses about.

Among their many beneficial uses, UAVs can: deliver goods and life-saving medical supplies; act as pilotless air taxis in an integrated urban transport network; play key roles in search and rescue operations; patrol disaster zones and other extreme environments; map weather systems and the spread of air- and water-borne pollution; assist in critical infrastructure maintenance; monitor transport networks and other essential facilities; help with the cleaning of remote offshore installations, such as wind turbines; and be a core component in smart agriculture by helping farmers to surveil crops, soil, and irrigation from the air, linked to tractors on the ground.

In 2018, Chinese UAV giant DJI claimed that the lives of 133 people had been saved by drones over the previous year in their (currently limited) use in search and rescue operations, while 5.2 million children worldwide die from lack of access to medicines and blood, lives that could be saved by using drones to deliver resources to remote areas. In Africa, drones are even being used to track the movement of Malaria-carrying mosquitos.

Drones can also help re-establish wifi communications in the wake of hurricanes and tsunamis, when local infrastructure has been severely damaged. All of these uses and more are the subject of ongoing research and development – and, in many cases, active commercial deployment. It’s not for nothing that Goldman Sachs has predicted that the global market for UAVs will be worth $100 billion next year, while PwC said last year that drones could add £42 billion ($53 billion) to UK GDP by 2030.

Meanwhile, NASA is developing swarms of autonomous rotorcraft to survey the surface of Mars, and has also unveiled the Astrobee, an autonomous drone designed to help astronauts maintain systems on the International Space Station. Autonomy may ring alarm bells for some, but far from being a threat, this type of aerial robot has a logical purpose: when drones or rovers are operating millions of miles from Earth, for example, real-time human control is impossible, due to communication lags of several minutes, so robots need to be able to operate independently in pursuit of preset mission aims. This principle of human-supervised autonomy applies in extreme environments on Earth, too, such as under the sea, where radio waves propagate poorly, creating similar human control problems for marine drones.

Counter-drone technology

But on Earth, public safety and security remain very real challenges, especially when UAVs will be integrated with the crowded airspace above cities. Speaking at a recent Westminster eForum event in London, Next Steps for the Drone Sector, co-chair Lord Wallace of Tankerness, Vice-Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Drones, said that this needs to be remembered as the UK reaches for the economic prize being offered by UAVs. He said:

An important point is to ensure that these opportunities can not only be identified and seized, but also in a way that recognises legitimate concerns about the development of drones, the safety issues that drones can endanger life, they can cause disruption, they can raise issues of personal privacy.

The challenge for policymakers is how to regulate in a way that strikes a proper balance between any restriction on their use and securing the benefits. [...] Perhaps the challenge is that safety should be the enabler rather than the barrier to the development of the drone industry. But we might also want to recognise that no amount of regulation is going to stop those who are deliberately malevolent, who don’t pay attention to regulation. So that raises other issues, such as what kind of counter measures can be taken.

Gordon Baker, Lead Policy Advisor on Robotics and Drones at the Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), explained that we should see counter-drone technologies as an opportunity that’s almost as exciting as drones themselves – much as cybersecurity is in the world of digital business. Other opportunities lie in specialist verticals, he said: mining, blue-light services, and more, and in the masses of data that aerial platforms can gather, around which new services can be spun.

The skills around all those adopters, in construction, in infrastructure, in mining [will be important]. And then moving out of a tech push and into mainstreaming drones as a capability that ties into their back-end data feeds, which then ties into the solutions they’re trying to find. I think that’s a transition that we have not really begun.

There is also a big area of opportunity around public acceptance, public perception, business awareness, and determining what’s possible and what’s desirable. The public needs the confidence that drones are being used for good activities.

Government ambition

So what is the UK government doing to encourage and regulate this booming sector? And how can it ensure that these technologies are developed and implemented safely, and integrated into complex human systems? Two private members bills on drone safety and assurance have been introduced in recent months, but these are unlikely to get far in this Parliamentary session, dominated as it is by arguments over Europe and the absence of political leadership.

The Drone Bill itself was given its first reading in 2017, but Baker said the government is hoping to share its progress in the next Queen’s Speech. Meanwhile, the Aviation Strategy Consultation is still open, with a final deadline for responses of 20 June 2019.

The Civil Aviation Authority – a conservative organisation that finds itself pushed into the frontline of new approaches to aviation – has recently set up an Innovation Hub and regulatory sandbox, while Future Flight, an Innovate UK project within BEIS, is supporting a number of research areas, including new vehicle types, ground infrastructures, innovative businesses, operating models, airspace management, and new system architectures.

The Department for International Trade (DIT) is also supporting the drone sector’s expansion. According to Baker, DIT is taking a group to Uber’s Elevate aerial taxi conference in the US in June and engaging with innovators and policymakers in Norway, Japan, Singapore, and elsewhere.

However, much still depends on whether the UK leaves the EU. The European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) is the core organisation for regulating UAVs in the 28 member states plus Norway, Switzerland, Lichtenstein, and Iceland. EASA has been working to develop drone regulations for some years, and hopes to put initial rules into action in 2020.

One of the many challenges for EASA is that the term ‘drone’ includes everything from small recreational devices to large-scale platforms that may transport people or goods and fly over populous areas. Regulation has to embrace both ends of this spectrum, and all points in between.

Another is the ongoing uncertainty over Brexit, including whether the UK remains a member of EASA. Leaving the organisation would have knock-on implications for the import of drones that have been designed for the EU market, and also for the export of aerial platforms and services from the UK. Indeed, this is one of many examples where the UK will almost certainly have to maintain equivalent standards, rather than be free of Europe’s supposed ‘red tape’. This principle applies to nearly every market in which the UK currently benefits from EU membership

Safety first

But the main strategic issue will be Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) operations: the key to opening up the commercial exploitation of UAVs beyond applications where a human pilot can see his or her drone from the ground. As Jim Cranswick, Head of Drone and Unmanned Traffic Management (UTM) Programmes at National Air Traffic Services (NATS) put it:

At the moment, to do BVLOS you really need to have complete control of the ground, and for the UK to stay at the head of where we’re going – which is why the Innovation Lab at the CAA needs these regulatory sandboxes – will be really important, as we need to push that boundary. We need to be able to fly uncertified beyond visual line of sight in open airspace over people, otherwise we completely limit the business case for what we can do and where.

But from my perspective, working for directorate of safety, how do we take the safety culture which the aviation industry can be incredibly proud of, the methodologies that we have, the practices... how can we take those and help the drone industry adopt those processes, and work with them so that we’re not limiting, but enabling?

For Robert Garbett, Chief Executive of the Drone Major Group and Chair of the National Committee on Drone Standards at the British Standards Institution (BSI), the solution is to adopt a more joined-up approach to the challenges ahead. He said:

What we really need to do is focus on creating a framework of sandboxes in the UK, that don’t just look at a specific project, or testing a specific UTM system in a specific location at one time, but actually provide, over the next three to five years, the ability for industry to test and evolve its technology and concepts. And for the standards to be built up alongside the lessons that are being experienced in those sandboxes.

We can also start testing new concepts and whether or not drone parcel delivery is feasible in an urban area, such as Canary Wharf – why not? This means that we could start to do things now in a safe environment so that we can then expand later. This will enable the industry to grow safely and effectively and enable the underpinning standards to develop along with it.

Collaboration [is important too]. I think from my experience in the aviation industry – and I’ve been in this industry for a very long time – we are very guarded about what we do, much more so than in the automotive industry. I think the driverless vehicle industry has enjoyed far more collaboration than we have.

We’ve just got to open ourselves up. If we are to move forward, and we all want this to move forward quickly and move forward together, we have to start collaborating, working together, and assisting the government as much as possible.

And engagement. I sit here as the Chairman of the BSI committee responsible for the development of standards for all drones, and I would love to see all of you engaging in that process, because it is fundamental to what you want to achieve. But at the moment, we don’t get sufficient engagement at BSI level – and we certainly don’t get it at ISO level. So the international standards that are going to drive your industry will be driven by the likes of China, Korea, Japan, and America, and that’s sad for us.

My take

This message that the UK needs a more joined-up approach between industry, government, and regulators in order to kick open the door to commercial exploitation is heard more and more across those industries that are critical to the new Industrial Strategy. In robotics, AI, machine learning, and other Industry 4.0 technologies, the need to create nationwide schemes and testbeds is pressing.

At present, Brexit is a galvanising force in limited respects, in that it is forcing the government to start new conversations in Asia, North America, and elsewhere, but uncertainty over the UK’s political future is overwhelming the government in others, paralysing it just when it needs to move forward and put the Industrial Strategy into action.

Put another way, the UK’s revamped digital economy is ready for takeoff, but is grounded by the constant, lurking presence of Brexit. In that context, we are all angry passengers, stuck in the departure lounge while officials struggle to open the runway.