To an outsider, it seems like Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs, or more commonly, drones) get a bad press. From disrupting Gatwick airport, attacking oil installations in Saudi Arabi or dropping drugs into prison, there’s a lot of focus on the negative. And that’s without the worry of a well-known parcel delivery company potentially filling the skies with noisy buzzing, or people snooping on another’s privacy. But drones are already saving lives, making infrastructure safer and saving money for companies across the UK, and there’s a whole new industrial sector developing offering drone services, software and analysis. The technology is changing rapidly, and in this space, the regulatory environment needs to develop too, securing benefits that drones can bring whilst tackling issues of safety, security, privacy and noise.
This challenge led the Foundation for Science and Technology and the Royal Society of Edinburgh to develop a pair of discussion events, one in London and the other in Edinburgh, on the industrial use of drones. Those events explored the overall commercial opportunity from drones, and their use in particular sectors – from inspecting oil tankers at sea, to checking levels of radiation at Chernobyl. Jobs that would previously take a week could be done in two hours, and the level of cost was sufficiently low that areas of minor damage that would previously have been discovered once and led to a precautionary shut down could now be inspected on multiple occasions to monitor changes – keeping open facilities at significant savings in money.
Future regulation will probably need systems to monitor where all drones are, or at least those above a certain weight, with additional safeguards when flying Beyond Visual Line of Site. Pilots will need to be licensed, and cities will have a great say in where, when and how their lower level airspace can be used. As with all technologies, malicious use is more than possible, but there is a balance to be made here, and the opportunities are huge. Drones are here to stay; the challenge is to regulate such that this is overwhelmingly a good thing.
Gavin Costigan is the Chief Executive of the Foundation for Science and Technology. To find out more about Gavin and his work click here.