• Everyone is talking about #drones, but we need to get the voices of the public on-board to unlock their full potential says, @LenaKuenkel.
  • Drones can be a major force for good, but the potential challenges of #drones in our skies are too big to ignore. #Findinglegitimacy
  • #Drones are here - but is the public ready for them? @LenaKuenkel explores + offers up some suggestions to make the most of the opportunity.

For the drone and robotics enthusiast, the last two weeks had loads to offer. The famous Farnborough Airshow in the UK last week gave us a glimpse into the aviation industry’s wildest imaginings. We saw everything from the “tiny cockroach-like drone” that promises to make aircraft maintenance work much easier to the “Black Swan” that promises heavy payload deliveries over long distances to meet the needs of emerging economies.

Then, on Monday this week, Nesta launched the Flying High report revealing key findings of a seven-month project to explore the use of drones for public benefit, funded by Innovate UK.

And finally, yesterday, UK Aviation Minister Baroness Sugg launched a consultation on new measures which could be part of the country’s upcoming Drones Bill. In an article in the Telegraph, Baroness Sugg outlines some of the benefits of using drones in public services and calls for increased regulation in order to ensure drones are operated safely. This consultation is the latest in a series of proposals that seek to address the public’s fears about drones and reduce near-collisions with manned aircraft.

The time is now and the opportunities are significant

There is a lot going on in robotics at the moment and – to me – it sometimes feels like things are happening too quickly. I, like many, fear our skies being full of drones much sooner than expected. I think about the noise, the potential danger of something falling from the sky. And yet, I do see the benefits of drones. Just looking at how drones are already being used to improve public services is making me positive: firefighters, for example, are increasingly deploying drones at the location of fires because imagery from above can help them target their response. Similarly, drones can help the police; the case of the 75-year old man from Norfolk who was found in the marshes is only one example that made the news in recent months.

Today, these cases are still few and far between, but with technology developing rapidly, the time to seriously think about how we want drones to be used is now. Where should they fly? And when? How do drones integrate into manned air traffic and who is accountable if something goes wrong with autonomous drones flying beyond visual line of sight?

Nesta’s work addresses some of these important questions for the use of drones in the public sector. The Flying High report concludes that with the right technology, drones can unlock significant benefits for public services. Drones can, for example, reduce the time it takes to deliver medical samples between hospitals and laboratories. They can help to strengthen the connectivity of remote areas, such as the Isle of Wight in the South or the Hebrides in the North of the UK. They can increase the efficiency of urban regeneration projects, saving taxpayer money and reducing traffic or noise disturbance caused by large-scale construction sites. It is clear that the time is now – so what are we waiting for?

Drones require legitimacy – we need to listen to the public in order to unlock the benefits of drones

As part of our work with Nesta, we used our Public Impact Fundamentals framework to assess the current UK drone policy against our Public Impact Fundamentals. Three elements emerge as weaknesses that need to be addressed in order to unlock the benefits of drones: regulatory and technological feasibility, alignment of interests between actors, and most importantly public confidence.

The UK Government’s consultations and upcoming Drones Bill will address some feasibility challenges. Without doubt, this is an important step to ensure that the UK is not falling behind other countries. In addition, projects such as the Flying High Challenge strengthen alignment. Nesta has successfully convened stakeholders from industry, the government and regulatory bodies with a view to developing a shared vision of drones in the UK going forward. More work is required to maintain momentum here.

But there seems to be something missing here: a sustainable strategy to engage the public. Whilst the five Flying High cities have started to consult local communities, more work is required to listen to the concerns of the general public, both in cities and in rural areas. Shouldn’t we be going out to schools to listen to tomorrow’s drone operators? Shouldn’t we be going out to listen to the many NIMBY-ists (Not In My Back Yard) in this country? How can we make sure that their voices are reflected in future policies, including the upcoming Drones Bill, without drowning out the possible benefits to us all? The recent consultation, albeit public, is not yet an inclusive debate. The 97 page document that accompanies the consultation is far from being accessible to the uninformed reader, and neither the consultation description nor the response form provide any indication about next steps.

We, at CPI, agree with Nesta that there is “a golden opportunity to shape the future of drones in the UK”. However, we need to bring the public with us. Without legitimacy, this new technology will not succeed. As part of our #FindingLegitimacy project, we have looked at what governments can do to build legitimacy and genuinely engage and listen to the public. We have found many examples from around the world of governments successfully engaging citizens on new technologies. The crucial behaviour is to listen, to listen to people’s concerns not just before a new bill is passed, and not just as an afterthought. Rather to listen throughout and to build a vision with the people, not just for them.

Unless the UK government starts to listen, the public will not accept the use of drones as legitimate. The opportunity of employing drones, particularly in public service, is simply too important to let that happen.

 

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