Drones and government policy – big urban challenges before take-off


There’s a drone revolution waiting to happen, but there are policy and regulatory issues to be addressed.

Drone policyIf you believe some sections of the British press, drones are a threat to civil liberties second only to job-stealing robots, Terminators, malignant AI systems, Russians, and the current leader of the Labour party. But the right-wing tabloids’ overwhelming fear of the future sits oddly next to current policymaking in the government they support.

Despite infighting, administrative incompetence, illegal mass surveillance, and the country teetering on the brink of a no-deal Brexit, the British government has got one thing right: its recent focus on new technology, AI, robotics, emission-free vehicles, and a revitalised Industrial Strategy that embraces all of these areas and more.

Drones – on land, sea, and in the air – are core to that process of industrial renewal, according to Dr Eamonn Beirne, head of emerging aviation technologies at the Department for Transport (DfT). Beirne gave the opening keynote at a Westminster eForum event in London this week, on the future of UK drones policy, exploring innovation, regulation, and their commercial application.

Drones need to be integrated safely into the UK’s crowded, complex airspace, with light-touch regulation balanced with a need for safety and security, he said. But their commercial potential is extraordinary, with uses in blue-light services, search and rescue, agriculture, critical infrastructure maintenance, and more – including passenger transport and deliveries, of course.

Combined with AI, computer vision systems, sensors, and the Internet of Things, the roving eyes of drones and their emerging ability to fly beyond visible line of sight (BVLOS) could have numerous transformative applications.

Elaine Whyte, PwC’s director of technology investments and leader of the UK drones team at the professional services company, put some figures against the opportunity. Drones, she said, could give a £42 billion GDP boost to the UK economy by 2030, and create 628,000 new jobs. But to get to that point, the industry needs to build trust.

So do the British public really fear drones as much as the tabloids would have us believe? Not according to DfT’s Beirne, who said:

The civil liberties angle is not one we really see. Most people, when questioned on the use of drones, are very supportive.

The key is education, he explained.

Infrastructure issues

But a bigger challenge is integrating drones safely with the UK’s ageing infrastructure, not to mention its ageing population – old people in old cities being one of the big challenges facing the West this century. (Asia and Africa face the opposite problem of catering for young people in young cities.)

But with drones inspecting tunnels and pipes, diving underwater, and operating at high altitude to map weather systems (or supply WiFi), that means establishing urban and national drone policies that extend all the way from the bottom of the ocean to the edges of space – a point made by Kathy Nothsdine, future cities lead at innovation charity Nesta.

That’s a massive challenge and embraces a whole range of issues, including technical aspects such as drone discoverability and geofencing.

Meanwhile, cities such as London stand to benefit most from an integrated, frictionless, on-demand transport and delivery network – which is why companies like Skyport are buying up or leasing rooftop spaces across the capital, making a long-term bet on the need for new drone infrastructure.

However, crowded, complex cities like London are not ideal places to test new, high-risk technologies, said Gareth Sumner, foresight manager at Transport for London. National testbeds are needed.

Jim Cranswick is in the hot seat of all of these challenges. He’s head of drone and unmanned traffic management (UTM) at the UK’s National Air Traffic Services (NATS). He said:

We’re very keen to support the drone industry going forward. We try to take a programmatic approach to say, how can we integrate these things into a very finite resource, which is airspace in the UK?

We can’t just say, ‘Well, drones will fly over here, and manned aviation will fly over there’. And we can’t say, ‘Below 400 feet there are no manned aircraft’, because there are, there is a lot of manned aircraft – military, emergency services, as well as sports, gliders, and general aviation enjoying airspace that is free and equitable [sic] to all of us.

The uncomfortable truth is that, since 2017, half of all ‘airprox’ incident reports – where one aircraft intrudes on another’s airspace – have been attributed to drones, said Cranswick. Those aren’t proven incidents or near misses, he explained; merely reports by pilots who claim to have seen a drone causing “a loss of separation” in the air.

In 2014, the number of airprox reports involving drones was zero.

So rightly or wrongly, pilots of manned aircraft see drones and their owners as a problem, even if the public does not. Most people don’t want to break the law, said Cranswick of drone enthusiasts, but most don’t know what the law is, he added.

NATS is doing a good job of engaging with drone owners itself, however. Its Drone Assist app and other services for owners now have 70,000 registered users, he said, voluntarily representing up to 2,000 flights a month.

But that’s principally in a VLOS (visible line of sight) context. The big prize is BVLOS operations, which is where drones’ mass commercial exploitation will really take off: delivering goods and medical supplies, helping first responders and emergency services, patrolling wind farms and power stations, maintaining roads and buildings, and helping farmers manage their land, livestock, and crops.

From an airspace safety and management perspective, that’s going to be another massive challenge and will force NATS to rethink how it goes about its business, Cranswick acknowledged. It will have further impacts on other commercial and amateur airspace users.

It may also impact on aircraft design, he said. In the old days, a plane might fly for 50 years before being taken out of service, whereas Chinese drone giant DJI, and others, bring out new models every few months. Either way, NATS’ focus is on integrating drones with manned aircraft and commercial aviation in an “interoperable, not segregated” manner, he said.

Those discussions shouldn’t just involve the air industry, said Dr Alan McKenna, lecturer at the Kent Law School at the University of Kent; the general public has to be involved too. “The public needs to be a part of an ongoing conversation”, he said, adding:

When discussing drone regulation, and changes to it and enforcement […] something that’s perhaps missing so far in terms of the overall debate is the lack of a full research exercise.

Another challenge is to do with size: with the rise of nano-drones, swarm-bots, and smart platforms that can sit comfortably in a child’s hand, at what point does air traffic control get involved – or stop being involved?


But a much bigger challenge facing the commercialisation of drones is associated with the rise of autonomy in the sector.

As February’s eForum event on AI policy explored, autonomous systems and AI present a fundamental legal problem, in that they challenge longstanding concepts of human responsibility and liability. In other words, if an autonomous drone injures someone or causes an accident, who is responsible? And who is liable?

When two people died on the US roads in March – one in California at the wheel of a driver-assisted Tesla, and another in Arizona under the wheels of an autonomous Uber test car – the coming legal nightmare was all too apparent.

The test driver was blamed by many for the Uber accident, despite Uber’s onboard systems failing to identify a pedestrian, and the Volvo’s own safety systems being overridden by Uber’s technology. And Tesla went out of its way to blame its own customer for not following instructions when his car slammed him into a concrete barrier.

So how big a challenge will autonomy in the air be to regulators and lawmakers? Cranswick said:

Currently, there has to be a human in the loop, and that human has to be able to say ‘land now’ and that human has responsibility for that drone. But where we move towards autonomy, the challenge will certainly rise.

Robert Garbett, CEO of the Drone Major Group and chair of the National Committee on Drone Standards, added:

In the air drone world, an area that’s been covered by the international standard, we always make sure that a human can intercept. But we still haven’t taken the standard to the level that would really accommodate fully autonomous systems. And that is a very big challenge for regulators.

My personal opinion – and it is only my personal opinion – is that the operator of such systems has a responsibility. The software itself is essentially the driver, if you’re talking about autonomous cars. Can the software be responsible [in law]? No, of course not. But can the maker of the software be held responsible? Well, if he’s done something that’s malicious, then yes.

But what you’re opening up here is a huge area of post-accident investigation, possibly of insurance. It’s a big mess, and nobody has really got their heads around it.

Just to reiterate, that’s the opinion of the chair of the National Committee on Drone Standards, so perhaps some tabloid fears aren’t wide of the mark.

It fell to Louis Barson, deputy director of Future Sectors, Business Growth Directorate, at the Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), to make a closing policy statement on behalf of the government. He said:

We are standing in the midst of a real technological revolution, and this is taking place across very many sectors, particularly with regard to the automation of the economy, at the intersection of AI, artificial intelligence, robotics, and drones as a mode of robotics. This is really going to reshape the economy and our society.

We have a whole load of work going on in drones policy at the moment, which is putting in place the fundamental building blocks that the industry needs, to give people the certainty and assurance that drones will be used in a safe and secure way.

My take

That’s true, and Barson is right to focus on the opportunity. But one challenge this government faces is that, as its own focus on AI, robotics, industrial strategy, green transport, and so on, has grown, so too has the serpentine structure of Whitehall to support it.

Statements come from all over government: DCMS, BEIS, BIS, and more. The Office for AI itself is shared across two departments, while DCMS has a bizarre brief that extends all the way from digital to sport. It’s a baffling state of affairs, and not fit for purpose.

It’s why the government’s positive message about new technology often gets lost.

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