The rise of the drones: Why the UK should empower cities to shape urban air mobility

There! Up in the sky! Image: Getty.

Innovation charity NESTA on what drones mean for our cities.

As the UK and Europe seek to integrate cutting-edge aerospace and smart mobility technologies in cities, the UK needs to take on a clear leadership role or risk falling behind. It must provide cities and the people who live in the information and power to shape this future.

Earlier this month, as part of the first anniversary of the government’s Industrial Strategy. business secretary Greg Clark attended a roundtable discussion in London about the future of technology and mobility in the UK. To reinforce and grow the UK’s global leadership in aerospace and mobility, Clark announced a new joint government-industry Aerospace Sector Deal to develop “Future Flight”. The deal aims to transform urban mobility through greater use of city airspace, and to spark the development of the next generation of electric planes, drones and autonomous aircraft by 2025.

Investing in technology and enabling new mobility solutions is a critical opportunity for the UK. But developing an entirely new sector requires understanding and using perspectives and capabilities across many different disciplines, centred around the public interest. This is particularly poignant when it comes to drone technology and interaction with the public and surrounding infrastructure.

Under the Flying High programme, we partnered with cities to explore the potential benefits that drones could bring as well as the risks. It was important to focus on cities because there is a significant potential market in urbanised areas; but cities, with all their complexities, present some of the greatest challenges when introducing a new form of transport and service delivery.

What has been learned so far?

In the first phase of Flying High, cities are keen to take advantage of the potential public service uses of drones (such as assisting with urgent medical transport or responding to emergency incidents) but want to place parameters on their use to protect safety and privacy and limit noise and visual blight.

Also, if drones are to bring cost savings and societal benefit to cities, they need to fly out of sight of an operator and in many cases autonomously. And it goes without saying that safety and security are non-negotiable.

A central challenge is developing technical systems alongside policy and regulations to enable drones to work in places with many people, tall buildings and varied land uses. This means involving many actors beyond the traditional aerospace sector, including local government and transport authorities, experts in ground transport and logistics, construction, planning, communications, and potential service users (such as the NHS and emergency services).

Most importantly, these systems need to be designed with input from the public.


European-wide urban air mobility

The recent announcement from government comes on the heels of the launch of a European-wide initiative, the European Innovation Partnership on Smart Cities and Communities (EIP-SCC) Urban Air Mobility Initiative. Nesta is the UK ambassador for this initiative and at Amsterdam Drone Week in November, Nesta took part in the first forum of the network of cities across Europe engaged in shaping the future of urban air mobility (UAM).

The UAM initiative is an effort to bridge the gaps among city and regional governments and the drone, transport and urban planning communities, to shape the next generation of urban mobility at it incorporates aerial transport.

More than 20 cities have signed up to the initiative, with a number of others committing to participate and learn from its activities in the coming year, and current aims are to launch practical demonstration projects over the next 18 months. Similar to Flying High, a central tenet of the European initiative is the empowerment of citizens as the key driver in shaping technology.

Technology demonstrators and public trials of drone technology are now happening all over the world (see, AfricaUS). More than ever, the UK needs to work out its position or risk falling behind, and cannot succeed without engaging the public.

What’s next?

To build on the momentum we’ve built so far, the next steps are to develop and prove place-based urban drone use cases demonstrating technological capabilities and public benefit based on viable business cases. We are engaging with potential users – policymakers, regulators, industry, end-users, citizens – to develop the use case envelopes and design the testing environments in early 2019, to enable the launch of urban drone challenge competitions later next year, culminating in the world’s first live urban drone trials in UK cities.

Kathy Nothstine is lead for Future Cities in the Challenge Prize Centre at NESTA, working on the future of urban transport and global cities. Click here to find out more about the Flying High programme.

 
 
 
 

To make electric vehicles happen, the government must devolve energy policy to councils

The future. Image: Getty.

Last week, the Guardian revealed that at least a quarter of councils have halted the roll-out of electric vehicle (EV) charging infrastructure with no plans to resume its installation. This is a fully charged battery-worth of miles short of ideal, given the ambitious decarbonisation targets to which the UK is rightly working.

It’s even more startling given the current focus on inclusive growth, for the switch to EVs is an economic advancement, on an individual and societal level. Decarbonisation will free up resources and push growth, but the way in which we go about it will have impacts for generations after the task is complete.

If there is one lesson that has been not so much taught to us as screamed at us by recent history, it is that the market does not deliver inclusivity by itself. Left to its own devices, the market tends to leave people behind. And people left behind make all kinds of rational decisions, in polling stations and elsewhere that can seem wholly irrational to those charged with keeping pace – as illuminted in Jeremy Harding’s despatch from the ‘periphery’ which has incubated France’s ‘gilet jaunes’ in the London Review of Books.

But what in the name of Nikola Tesla has any of this to do with charging stations? The Localis argument is simple: local government must work strategically with energy network providers to ensure that EV charging stations are rolled out equally across areas, to ensure deprived areas do not face further disadvantage in the switch to EVs. To do so, Ofgem must first devolve certain regulations around energy supply and management to our combined authorities and city regions.


Although it might make sense now to invest in wealthier areas where EVs are already present, if there isn’t infrastructure in place ahead of demand elsewhere, then we risk a ‘tale of two cities’, where decarbonisation is two-speed and its benefits are two-tier.

The Department for Transport (DfT) announced on Monday that urban mobility will be an issue for overarching and intelligent strategy moving forward. The issue of fairness must be central to any such strategy, lest it just become a case of more nice things in nice places and a further widening of the social gap in our cities.

This is where the local state comes in. To achieve clean transport across a city, more is needed than just the installation of charging points.  Collaboration must be coordinated between many of a place’s moving parts.

The DfT announcement makes much of open data, which is undoubtedly crucial to realising the goal of a smart city. This awareness of digital infrastructure must also be matched by upgrades to physical infrastructure, if we are going to realise the full network effects of an integrated city, and as we argue in detail in our recent report, it is here that inclusivity can be stitched firmly into the fabric.

Councils know the ins and outs of deprivation within their boundaries and are uniquely placed to bring together stakeholders from across sectors to devise and implement inclusive transport strategy. In the switch to EVs and in the wider Future of Mobility, they must stay a major player in the game.

As transport minister and biographer of Edmund Burke, Jesse Norman has been keen to stress the founding Conservative philosopher’s belief in the duty of those living in the present to respect the traditions of the past and keep this legacy alive for their own successors.

If this is to be a Burkean moment in making the leap to the transformative transport systems of the future, Mr Norman should give due attention to local government’s role as “little platoons” in this process: as committed agents of change whose civic responsibility and knowledge of place can make this mobility revolution happen.

Joe Fyans is head of research at the think tank Localis.