Amidst the hoopla of the Farnborough Airshow last week, the Government launched what it described as it’s ‘Drone Ambition Statement’. However, ‘Advancing airborne autonomy: Commercial drones saving money and saving lives in the UK’ is in reality, a hodgepodge of previous announced policies, ‘refreshed’ statistics and pleas to business and regulators to ‘get on with it’. The frustration in the document – both with the public’s scepticism about the benefit of drones and the regulators hesitance on safety grounds to throw open the skies to drones – is palpable.
Underpinning the government’s push to open UK skies to drones is the belief that it will bring huge financial benefit to the UK. A 2018 report from consultants PriceWaterhouseCoopers (PWC) sought to put a figure to this conviction and came up with the suggestion that drones ‘could’ give a £42bn “uplift” to the UK economy by 2030. While this figure has been quoted so many times in the media that its now almost taken as fact, in reality it is basically guess work.
As part of this renewed push on drones, the government asked PWC to update its report (hence, Skies Without Limits v2.0) and the consultants now suggests that by 2030 drones could contribute up to £45bn to the UK economy. However as PWC makes clear, this figures is dependent on “best case adoption” and notes that “many challenges must be addressed to unlock this potential estimate.” Indeed. These ‘challenges’ include developing the necessary technology to allow many more drones to fly within UK airspace – and in particular, to allow them to fly ‘Beyond Visual Line of Sight’ (BVLOS); putting in place a new regulatory framework that would allow drones to fly alongside crewed aircraft; and finally changing the public’s negative perception of drones.
Technology and Regulation
The government is helping to fund the development of technology which it says will enable drones to fly safely in UK airspace safely through UK Research and Innovation’s Future Flight Challenge. The paper reports that the government is providing £125m of grants (since 2020) matched by £175m from industry for this work. One area that needs focus is communication technology as drones need to be remotely controlled as well as transfer information and broadcast locational information. Drone communications have been known to interfere with air traffic control signals which is a serious problem.
However, it is the area of regulation that is providing significant challenge. The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) is responsible for flight safety and, as we have highlighted previously, all air safety measures are built upon a pilot ‘seeing and avoiding’ danger. Without a pilot in the cockpit, this is simply not possible and therefore safety measures for drones must be built up from scratch. Industry and government’s frustration with the lack of progress is clear. In a key passage on regulation the paper states:
“The significant and exciting progress being made in drones is challenging traditional regulatory approaches all over the world. No country has developed comprehensive strategies and there is still a significant amount of work to be done on the global stage to understand what the shared principles will be for wider adoption of autonomous flight systems.”
It goes on:
“Government will now help drive the sector forward by supporting collaboration and co-creation of new solutions for the sector. It will deliver a Future of Flight Plan (FoF Plan), building on existing work …. This will set specific milestones addressing key challenges over the coming years. Recognising that we need multiple perspectives to deliver a coordinated, effective approach, and adapt to the changing technology and innovation landscape, government has announced a new governance structure – the Future of Flight Industry Group (FFIG) that will sponsor and help develop this plan. It will be supported by officials from across government to provide strategic view across the public sector and deliver the Future of Flight vision.
This sounds awfully like government and industry is getting frustrated with the CAA’s careful approach, and is putting in place a new structure to drive regulation forward. Whether this will erode the CAA’s safety role remains to be seen. The CAA is due to publish its Airspace Modernisation Strategy in the near future.
However, the negative public perception of drones also remains a significant obstacle that the government is keen to challenge, with a core component of its plans being to undertake “active public outreach and communications underlining the positive potential uses for and benefits of commercial drones.”
While the Government’s paper quotes a media report on a 2021 BT opinion survey which reports that that 68% believe drones will have a positive impact, the actual underlying survey is much more mixed. As BT says itself following the survey “Public opinion is split over whether drones stand to have a positive or a negative impact on society in the future.” 49% were ‘generally optimistic’ or ‘excited’ by drones while 39% were ‘worried’ or ‘had concerns’.
As part of this new push on drones, a ‘communications plan’ was commissioned “to both mitigate concerns around greater drone use and also to increase positive public sentiment and boost perceptions of the technology.” A full copy of this marketing plan is below:Promoting Drones for Good - A communications Plan
Some part of the plan are risible. For example, in relation to sharing images of drones, it gives the advice that “The inclusion of a person in a high-vis jacket makes drones feel more serious and shows another side to their application – but these should be used carefully as they can provoke associations with drones being dangerous”.
However, the plan ultimately suggests three key messages which it argues will improve the perception of drones among the public:
- Drones can assist the emergency services
- Drones can provide environmental benefits
- Drones can keep people safe
While use of drones by the emergency services has been promoted by the industry for some time, and the theme of ‘drones keeping people safe’ is somewhat vague, it is likely that we will now face a of barrage of messaging about the environmental benefits of drones. Indeed the paper itself argues that there is ‘evidence’ that using drones will cut carbon emissions by reducing the number of cars on the roads, as (quoting PWC again) “Inspection engineers, emergency workers and security guards will no longer need to drive long distances to remote locations at anti-social hours to make routine assessments or respond to incidents.”
It is clear that the government intends to ‘educate’ the public into accepting drones through promoting a narrative that drones are good for us and the environment. However, there is clear evidence that opening skies to drones will mean a huge expansion in surveillance. This will not only include public authorities such as police and local councils using drones in this way but also huge number of businesses.
The PWC report gives one example (right) of how “use cases for security drones are now emerging in the UK.”
While there continue to be serious questions about safety aspect of opening UK skies to drones, there also remains serious civil liberties and quality of life issues. Any government ambition statement on drones really should be addressing these underlying issues if it really wants to convince the public on drones and not simply ‘refining the message’.