Drones and the public sector: part one

In an article on Digital by Default News earlier this year, Tim Pitts, Managing Partner at Agilisys predicted that one of the seven digital government trends to look out for in 2018 would be drones.

While admitting that uptake of the technology is still at an early stage, Tim alluded to the fact that several local authorities are looking at using drones for various purposes. These include reviewing properties to avoid the cost of putting up scaffolding, spotting fly-tipping and various mapping services.

According to Drones on Demand, there’s plenty of potential for the use of this developing technology in the public sector. They point to the use drone technology to capture survey data of sensitive or high-risk sites. This data can be used to create detailed mapping and elevation profiles, enabling authorities to track erosion or count the number of plants or trees in a given area. Detailed mapping and models for environmental impact statements is made easier.

The drone specialist also points to the ability to slash the time taken to capture and process survey data, allowing for more regular surveying and therefore faster identification of issues as they emerge.

 

Infrastructure inspections

Using drones to inspect public infrastructure has numerous benefits. Above all else however it improves safety, reduces down time and saves money. Visual inspections of assets that require working at height can be safely conducted using drone technology with minimal disruption to the users of the infrastructure.

Drones on Demand add that drones can carry many payloads, allowing the visual inspection of assets in high definition, from a distance using zoom capability and in thermal. They are also able to inspect the underside of bridges using drone mounted lighting and upward looking cameras.

 

Healthy appetite

It’s clear that the potential of drones hasn’t gone unnoticed by public sector organisations. Earlier this year, Nesta named the five pioneering cities that it is partnering with this year to design how drone technology could operate in complex city environments. Solutions aim to address local needs, as part of the Flying High Challenge developed in partnership with Innovate UK.

Nishita Dewan, Programme Lead for the Flying High Challenge, explained: “The entries to the Flying High Challenge showed the huge appetite from cities across the UK to develop models for drones that work for their people and communities. We saw diverse and creative uses for drones such as boosting Wi-Fi and helping find lost children at the seaside, to the support for key public services such as delivering AEDs and inspecting critical infrastructure.

“Cities represent an important medium, through which we can understand the public’s needs, both for Flying High and our partners, BEIS, CAA and the DfT. We want to co-create a solution that understands the needs of local people and the future city they want to live in.

Bradford, London, Preston, Southampton and the West Midlands region are now working with the Flying High team to explore how drones could be used in their communities. Further details on these initiatives can be found here.

Andrew Carter, Chief Executive of the think tank Centre for Cities, commented: “The increasing use of drones and other new technology will bring huge changes to UK cities in the coming years, and places which adapt and take advantage of these developments will have a better chance of prospering in future.

“The Flying High Challenge is a great opportunity to examine how different cities can use drones to address the distinct challenges and opportunities they face. It will offer valuable lessons for places across the country on how we can use new technology to strengthen local economies and make our cities better places to live and work.”

 

Call for regulation

While there is clearly potential to utilise drones within the public sector, there are some negatives to consider. Fuelled by stories of near-misses with passenger aircraft, not to mention security and privacy fears, it’s unsurprising that research by Nominet found that the clear majority of consumers (92%) think there should be restrictions on who can use a drone.

The research found that nearly three-quarters (72%) of those surveyed support the equivalent of a driving licence for drone operators. Consumers are also calling for greater regulation, with 90% saying they want drones to be registered with a central body. Some consumers (17%) went as far as to say that drones shouldn’t be available to the general public at all. Over a third (35%) think potential owners should have to take an exam and have background checks before being able to pilot a drone.

When asked where drones should be registered, 42% of consumers called for a new central body to be set up, while 37% said the government, and 30% believe it should be up to the aviation authorities. A quarter think drones should be registered with the police, while 10% don’t think drones need to be registered at all.

Russell Haworth, CEO of Nominet says: “At the moment, drones are largely extravagant toys, but the reality is that they have the potential to revolutionise many aspects of our lives. The speed and versatility of drones means they can be deployed with ease, and many are small enough to be unobtrusive.

“However, what’s needed is a centralised database and flight path mapping tools that allows these drones to communicate with each other. That way, accidents are less likely to happen, as collision avoidance systems would take over in the event of an emergency. City infrastructure would also need updating to accommodate drones, including things like landing locations. No doubt as cities become smarter, drones will play a wider role.”

 

Drone pilot training

While regulation, mapping tools and centralised databases are still a topic for debate, one partnership aiming to deliver effective commercial drone pilot training has been set up by NATS, the UK’s air traffic control provider, and Sky-Futures, a commercial drone-based inspection and training service. The initiative will bring NATS’ airspace and aviation expertise together with Sky-Futures’ drone-flying skills to deliver expert training to the burgeoning commercial drone sector and the emergency services.

As businesses and public services increasingly seek to embrace the benefits of drone technology, the NATS/Sky-Futures partnership will deliver tailored, scenario-based training that will aim to set a new standard for the UK. As well as online theory training about aviation law and responsible flying, students will receive advanced training on how to safely operate a drone in scenarios that closely match their own working environment.

Customers will be trained at the Sky-Futures Training Academy (SFTA) near Oxford as well as at NATS operational centres in Swanwick and Prestwick. Facilities at the SFTA include a ship, railway line, motorway, oil rig, metal towers and commercial buildings – a customer who inspects transmission towers, for example, will be trained how to prepare for this type of operation and how to use a drone as an inspection tool. This level of role-specific training is unmatched in the UK.

James Cranswick, NATS Drones Business Manager said: “This is an exciting development that takes us closer to safely realising the potential of this emerging industry in the UK. We recognise drones have huge potential to deliver benefits across society and to our economy and, by partnering with Sky-Futures, we can offer commercial drone operators the all-round training necessary for the drone industry to flourish safely alongside the traditional aviation industry.”

While pilot training schemes like the above are to be welcomed, it’s hard to see how public fears over drone safety will be allayed until mandatory regulation is put in place. If and when that will happen is anybody’s guess and, until it happens, there’s a risk that the benefits of drones to the public sector won’t be fully realised.

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