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Five drone use cases that will help us map the future

Written by Olivier Usher

May 8, 2018

We’re exploring five different uses for drones in cities to explore the technical and economic challenges that face the development of drones

The future of drones in cities could take many forms; how positive this impact will be will depends on decisions we as society take in the next few years.

How will we prioritise various drone activities? In urban areas the priority should always be ensuring public safety, public security and appropriate levels of privacy. If these challenges can be overcome in a way that is publicly supported, then there could be opportunities for drones to support public services and open up significant economic opportunity.

Regardless of what form drones take, they are likely to be used for a diverse range of tasks. To make decisions on which are ‘appropriate’ for a given city requires us to understand the benefits and impacts of each application.

As part of the Flying High project, we’ve worked with the five partner cities to identify five promising use cases. Exploring these is a key part of our research. These use cases are:

  1. Urgent delivery of medical products between hospitals (in London)
  2. Surveying for urban regeneration (in Preston)
  3. Responding to traffic incidents (in the West Midlands)
  4. Supporting the fire service (in Bradford)
  5. Carrying medical goods across the Solent (from Southampton)

We want to get to the heart of what these would look like in practice, their feasibility, benefits and impact. Rather than broad descriptions of how they might work, we are modelling examples of what we think they are most likely to look like based on several assumptions. This approach can give us a good indicator of whether or not these uses are technically, economically and socially feasible.

What does that mean in practice?

For each of the five use cases we’re digging into, we’re sketching out what a likely flightpath might look like: where the drones would take off, where they would fly, where they would land.

For urgent medical delivery, for instance, we are modelling drones carrying medical products between two hospitals. In Preston we are looking at drone-based surveying of real locations on the planned construction site of the M55 link road.

We’re assessing what the technical requirements for drones to carry out these missions would be: range, endurance, safety, autonomy and so on. These are all use cases that don’t currently exist - so we need to make reasonable assumptions, guided by expert interviews, support from the five cities’ technical leads, and the expertise of our in house drones research team.

We’ll also model the economic and social feasibility of each of the five use cases. We need to understand not only whether our proposals are technically feasible, but what kind of business case might support them - for instance, we need to understand the benefits in terms of the cost savings, benefit to the public, improvements to safety and the size of the market. Alongside this are less tangible, but equally important, benefits and challenges including lives saved, impact on quality of life and public acceptance.

These technical, economic and social feasibility studies will help us identify challenges that need to be solved in order to make the use cases a reality - and point towards how we might address these challenges.

They will also inform our broader analysis of how drone systems are likely to work in practice.

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Written by Olivier Usher

May 8, 2018