22 October 2021

The drone revolution is already here – but we need the right rules to take full advantage

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There’s a technological revolution taking place in the sky above us. Most people’s experience of drones will be as a fun way to take aerial photographs, or even just a toy to fly about in their gardens, but they are capable of so much more.

Indeed, drones are already being used for inspections of buildings, roads, railways, power lines and even planes in airports, saving the time and money involved in sending people to great heights or across great distances. With the help of drones, potential problems are being identified and resolved sooner rather than later, making our infrastructure cheaper to maintain and repair.

And this is only the start. In some countries, drones are helping to save lives through emergency medical deliveries of organs and medicines. Their commercial potential is also enormous, with trials of door-to-door deliveries beginning in the US and Ireland. Drone deliveries of mail, packages and food promise to bring access to big city amenities much farther into the suburbs and even the countryside.

The fact drones can take off and land vertically, without the need for a long runway, may even one day be applied to passenger transportation. They may provide a faster and cheaper alternative to getting to areas currently only served by roads, without having to go through the major costs and delays of trying to lay new tram or railway lines. As with home deliveries, a drone revolution in passenger transportation will make it much easier for people to live further away from the big cities, while still being able to enjoy the perks of a city lifestyle.

With ever-cheaper and lighter batteries, and ever more sophisticated navigation systems, inventors and entrepreneurs are rapidly solving the technical barriers that stand in the way. The key obstacles now are political.

Trials of drone services have already been taking place under the auspices of the Civil Aviation Authority, and although the regulator has to take a safety-first approach, they have been remarkably forward-thinking in this area. The big challenge for the UK is finding a way to safely integrate drones into one of the busiest airspaces in the world. It is one thing to set aside some airspace temporarily for a trial, but quite another to have drones continually making deliveries above and around London.

To actually achieve the potential of drones, they will have to be integrated into the area below 10,000 feet, traditionally the near-uncontested domain of recreational flyers. As it stands, recreational flyers can fly when and where they like, subject to very simple rules, and with pilots taking full responsibility for their own safety. Pilots flying in this airspace do not even have to emit electronic signals from their aircraft. Drones threaten to change all that.

If drones are to be integrated into our skies, the less regulated parts of our skies will need a new set of rules. And although the technology already exists to make this possible without needing traditional air-traffic control systems, it will require all recreational flyers to emit electronic signals so that they become visible, in effect, to drones.

At the moment, recreational flyers are being asked to pay for much of the cost of becoming electronically conspicuous themselves. But a new report by The Entrepreneurs Network, ‘Digitise the Skies’, makes the case that the Government should bear the entire one-off cost of all existing aircraft installing these electronic signal emitters, which will likely be less than £10m. That’s small change compared to the £42bn estimated to be added to the country’s economy thanks to drones by 2030, and a simple solution that should satisfy recreational flyers, helping them to make the transition to much busier and more regulated skies.

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Anton Howes is Head of Innovation Research at The Entrepreneurs Network.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.