GSMA Intelligence: UK is falling behind in drone innovation

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A report by GSMA Intelligence highlights the UK’s lagging position in the global race for drone innovation.

Commissioned by BT Group, the report emphasises the need for the UK to learn from international peers and implement recommended measures to ensure its leadership in the burgeoning drone economy.

The research, supported by BT Group, reveals that countries such as Japan, Switzerland, France, Germany, and Italy have made significant progress in developing their drone ecosystems due to established regulatory frameworks and infrastructure.

In contrast, the UK currently ranks in the middle of the “drone readiness” index, with Switzerland leading the pack and the US at the bottom due to slower progress in regulatory rulemaking:

The potential economic impact of drones in the UK is staggering, with projections estimating a contribution of £45 billion to the economy and the creation of 650,000 jobs by 2030. Given these promising prospects, timely action based on the report’s recommendations is crucial for both the public and private sectors.

A recent poll conducted for BT Group underscores the public’s positive attitude toward drone technology, with 75 percent of consumers considering it essential for drones to be utilized in public service delivery. Furthermore, two-thirds of respondents believe that drones could have a beneficial impact on their lives.

In light of this, the UK faces a narrow window of approximately 12 months to facilitate increased investment and technological development. Failure to do so risks falling behind in the global race.

To bolster the UK’s drone readiness and secure its position as a global leader, the report presents four key recommendations for the UK government, the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), and other relevant agencies:

  1. Facilitating permissions for safe, remotely piloted drone flights at scale: The guidelines for Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) drone capability, which underpins the industry’s success, need to be simplified and modernized. Establishing a supportive regulatory framework encompassing Unmanned Aircraft Traffic System Management (UTM), safety standards, and training is imperative.
  1. Enforcing pro-innovation regulations and a pro-growth regulatory culture: The CAA should develop workable regulations that encourage investment while ensuring safety and fostering public confidence in the industry.
  1. Extending the Future Flight Challenge: The government-funded Future Flight Challenge has been instrumental in stimulating private-sector innovation. The report recommends extending this program or creating a related scheme to ensure the involvement of innovative companies in the drone sector.
  1. Urgent action: The UK must swiftly establish regulations and guidance to remain competitive. Many advanced economies anticipate having drone regulations in place by 2024-2025, and the UK must meet this timeline to develop homegrown technology for domestic and export markets effectively.

BT Group’s startup incubation hub, Etc., has already made strides in unlocking the potential of drones through partnerships. For example, their collaboration with UTM specialist Altitude Angel aims to create a one-stop-shop for UK drone enablement capabilities.

Dave Pankhurst, Director of Drones, Etc. at BT Group, said: “Across the globe, the drone industry is being rapidly unlocked. Tapping into this can transform the world of business, the delivery of public services, and the prospects for the UK economy.  

“BT Group is leading from the front. Our mobile network, as the largest and most reliable in the UK, could be critical. From improving flight control; assisting with authentication and authorisation; facilitating data transmission; and enabling cellular communication, 4G and 5G technology can be the backbone of the industry.  

“At Etc., we have reached some significant landmarks already, but with these new recommendations, we hope to rally the support of the government and industry regulators for the UK drone industry to reach its full potential.”

BT Group’s research also reveals strong consumer demand for drone capabilities across various industries, including utilities, public services, manufacturing, logistics, conservation, and entertainment.

Tim Hatt, Head of Consulting at GSMA Intelligence, commented: “The challenge for the UK is that, despite huge progress in drone development, regulation has not kept pace and the country therefore scores only 62 out of 100 on overall market readiness, placing it behind European peers and others such as Japan.”

Hatt believes that taking action on the report’s recommendations would support the UK’s ambition to become a technological leader in the 5G era, bolstering GDP, job creation, and international competitiveness.

The report aims to serve as a wake-up call for the UK to prioritise drone innovation. By learning from international counterparts, implementing pro-innovation regulations, extending relevant programs, and acting swiftly, the UK can position itself as a global leader in the drone economy, unlocking significant economic and societal benefits.

A full copy of the report can be found here (PDF)

Related: BT powers a UK-first medical drone trial

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