August 16, 2022

A response to the UK Drone Ambition Statement

Chief Regulatory Officer Simon Whalley reflects on the Drone Ambition Statement, the UK Government’s vision for how UAVs will deliver new capabilities, boost productivity, and reduce emissions.

The first day of Farnborough Air Show is traditionally reserved for the big announcements and this year was no different. Among the many was the publication of the UK Government Drone Ambition Statement, outlining how government and industry can work together to capture the widely touted benefits of uncrewed aircraft systems to the economy.

Through Advancing airborne autonomy: Commercial drones saving money and saving lives in the UK the Government reaffirmed its vision for commercial drone use, such as delivery and  monitoring and inspection services, underpinned by a recent report by PwC Skies Without Limits v2.0 which forecasts that the uncrewed aircraft industry could be worth £45 billion to the UK economy by 2030. The Statement goes on to share a wide range of use cases and projects in an attempt to inspire potential new customers to embrace drone technology to improve their businesses operations.

As with most new Government reports, readers need to look closely at what is actually new, beyond the usual padding of pre-announced policies and funding commitments; after all, industry and future customers will want to know what, if anything, they can expect to change to expand and scale drone use in the UK over the coming years.

The Statement does reshare a lot of great initiatives already underway by both industry and Government, the principal one being the Ministers’ backing of new aviation technology through the Future Flight Challenge investment of £125 million of grants match funded by industry.  Others already in the pipeline are the Airspace Modernisation Strategy and efforts by the communications regulator Ofcom to enable the use of mobile networks to control drones operated beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) for commercial use a very welcome advancement.

While it can be tempting to be cynical about new information that is already in the public domain, highlighting these significant policy and finance interventions in this case shows that the Government is doing its fair share of helping to enable the industry to flourish. So, what is the problem and why isn’t the UK industry further forward?  It isn’t as if there aren’t plenty of customers wanting to adopt drone technology into their firms; in fact, potential end users have a good understanding of the benefits of drones they just want to see them fly.

The biggest barrier is regulation, and the Statement is peppered with frustration that the pace of regulatory reform in the UK is not moving fast enough and it isn’t. The UK will fail to realise the financial returns to the economy estimated by PwC and unmanned aircraft operators will not be able to deliver for their already-keen customers unless action is taken quickly to enable complex drone operations (e.g. enabling BVLOS operators to share the same airspace as crewed aviation without being contained in a small, temporary volume of segregated airspace).  Stronger policy direction on what should happen and by when is essential achieve progress.

Future Flight Challenge has already funded a number of projects focused on flying BVLOS in non-segregated airspace projects, but very few have yet come to fruition because of regulatory hurdles. Similarly, neither has the regulator the UK Civil Aviation Authority yet iteratively adapted today’s regulatory framework based on the performance data and operational experience gathered through projects which were realised.  As the Government, industry and the regulator are about to embark on the next phase of the Future Flight Challenge, it is essential that the disconnect between Government funding and regulatory reform is resolved rapidly to ensure the government and industry gets a return on its investment and to avoid UK Ministers having to use Farnborough 2024 to publish another ambition statement.