Five years ago, drones were for taking photographs from novel angles. By last week, drones were being put forward as protection for firefighters, security risks, and for medical support. A techUK event on 13 June brought together manufacturers, policy-makers, regulators, and professional users to explore the policy challenges around taking full advantage of the opportunities offered by drones.
Elaine Whyte from PwC presented an innovative vision outlined in a new report: “Drones – taking the UK’s economy to new heights.” By 2030, she said, there could be 76 000 drones operating in the UK’s skies, resulting in a £42bn increase in GDP, £16bn in net cost savings for the UK economy, and 628 000 jobs in the drone economy. From protecting firefighters in dangerous fire sites to catching plastic pollution in the seas or transporting donor blood to remote areas, drones have enormous potential to contribute to the economic and social wellbeing of citizens.
Questions of privacy, ethics and… noise
Panels concerning security, safety and privacy noted that citizens are beginning to ask ethical questions regarding drone technologies. Lord Wei highlighted the NIMBY (not in my back yard) phenomenon, where many support the idea of drone technologies, but are unwilling to deal with any negatives that affect them. People are concerned about the additional noise drones might create, as well the potential risks to their privacy, whether through intentional monitoring or as a side effect of other drone applications. Lord Wei advised drone manufacturers to concentrate on agriculture, industry and waterways and avoid expanding operations in cities for the time being.
Making a case for drones
In order to achieve the 2030 vision, PwC say three key conditions must be fulfilled: deployed technology, societal acceptance and appropriate regulation. Industry needs to make the leap towards developing drones for use in construction, public safety, infrastructure, energy, agriculture, and media. While regulation will need to be developed, James Bell from the Department for Transport argued that policy-makers should not hold back innovation with heavy regulation. Instead, he said, the UK government has published an aviation strategy which aims to unlock the potential of drones; however, regulation must also ensure public safety, for example by addressing the risks to aircraft.
Given public suspicion of drones due to how they’ve encountered the first uses of the technology, language will be key to overcoming societal concerns, some argued. Panels explored calling drones used to help in emergencies “medical air units” instead of “drones” to experiment with how changing the narrative can help change perception. Nishita Dewan, who leads the Flying High Challenge at Nesta, advised drone enthusiasts to tell stories and use language that their grandparents can understand, alongside a strong focus on public safety.
All three panels concluded that work remains to be done in this fast-moving industry. In order to address citizens’ concerns and reservations on the wider use of drones, a more familiar narrative is needed, explaining how drones can contribute to society in language any non-expert can understand. This narrative, however, needs to be matched by deploying drone technologies that serve a societal purpose and regulation that protects citizens while allowing private companies and public organisations to take full advantage of the benefits.
Author: Simona Lipstaite, International Public Policy Manager, Access Partnership