ITC explores the impact of aerial drones

What will be the impact of aerial drones on transport?

The Occasion

One of the most significant technological developments in recent years has been the proliferation of aerial drones for civilian and non-military uses. Autonomous aerial vehicles are now being tested for a wide range of uses, including commercial, freight, scientific and recreational purposes. A range of opportunities now exists to extend the use of drones into areas including search and rescue, cargo deliveries, and passenger transport. For instance, Dubai has announced testing this summer of a passenger drone for travel in the city area. However, these developments raise serious questions about the consequences of aerial drone proliferation, including public and aviation safety, airspace management, protection of privacy and security. What will be the future impact of drones on transport and how can this be best managed?

To debate this important topic the ITC was delighted to welcome a distinguished panel of experts on drones to our Autumn Discussion Evening on 26th October 2017. Chaired by ITC Commissioner and host Dr Stephen Hickey, over 60 senior experts attended and the subject was introduced through talks from a panel comprising: Professor Tom Cherrett, University of Southampton; Tim Johnson, Director of Policy at the CAA; and Olivier Usher, Head of Challenge Prize research at NESTA. ITC Patron Lord Freeman also explained how he was advancing the question of drone safety in Parliament.


The impact of aerial drones on transport – Key issues raised by the speakers:

  • Professor Cherrett provided an overview of the opportunities provided by aerial drones. He explained that the application of aerial drones extended far beyond transport but it opened many opportunities within the sector. The possibility of drones fulfilling the last mile of deliveries had received the most publicity, with Amazon’s trials ongoing. But there are a wide range of other applications, from helping with medical logistics to assisting service engineers and monitoring the state of transport infrastructure. Professor Cherrett suggested that the use of drones for the parcel market would likely be a premium service for those wanting fast delivery, rather than a catch-all service. Challenges remained around how drone deliveries would be completed in urban areas, with options including the use of landing pads on roofs or parachute drop. The regulation of aerial drones was also a growing challenge with increasing numbers of near misses with aircraft. Security and preventing hacking of drones were further challenges.

    Olivier Usher addresses the audience

  • Olivier Usher explored the implications of drone systems for our infrastructure and cities. He observed that drone development had been rapid and was approaching the ‘Model T’ phase where products were becoming accessible to a mass market. Yet little attention had been given to the infrastructure that would be required by mass drone use, and how this would affect the urban environment. He pointed to NESTA’s research in this area, which indicated that an opportunity existed to share widely the benefits of drone technology, and involve citizens in the decision making process for determining drone systems in cities. With such actions, he suggested that it might be possible to harness the social and economic benefits from drones.
  • Tim Johnson provided insights on the regulatory issues surrounding aerial drones. He noted that the regulator faced a difficult balancing act between enabling economic and societal opportunities and mitigating the safety risks that accompanied aerial drone use. In recent years there had been a significant rise in the permissions being sought for drone use, as well as reported near misses with aircraft. The public was focused on the public and aviation safety risks, he observed, and impatient for standards and rules. However, it would be important to gain international consensus on regulations, and it was also currently very difficult to enforce drone regulations. Future steps might include the need for geofencing technology to restrict drone operations, better education of drone users so they become safe aviators, and forms of registration linked to electronic tracking to aid enforcement.

ITC Patron Lord Freeman talks about his work in Parliament.

Key themes raised in the discussion

  1. Greater regulation of drones will be necessary. Several guests recommended that a clearer and more extensive regulatory framework for drone use would be helpful for businesses investing in this area. Concerns were expressed that ongoing uncertainty over regulations would hamper initiatives and prevent responsible companies investing in this technology. A recurring problem though, was how such regulations could be policed. Some noted that the advent of black boxes on drones would enable greatly improved information on and regulation of their use, although there remained the question of how to handle and monitor such data.
  2. Aerial drones have a wide range of uses each with a different cost and benefit profile. It was observed that we need to understand the wide range of different drone uses that exist and that a flexible regulatory framework should be devised to take account of these. For instance, the use of drones to help with the maintenance of infrastructure had substantial public benefit and should not face major constraints. Healthcare was also proposed as an area where drones could be used to improve logistics and deliver large benefits for the public. On the other hand, the costs and risks associated with drone use were unlikely to make them the normal vehicle for pizza delivery. Several guests suggested that demonstration projects would be beneficial for exploring the optimal uses for drones.
  3. Are we prepared for passenger carrying drones? One initiative discussed was the development of aerial drones capable of carrying passengers, using vertical take off and landing (VTOL) that made these suitable for urban environments. However, it was clear that this would be a premium transport service, rather than a replacement for mass transit systems. Some questioned the infrastructure that would be required to enable such activity, and recommended that consideration be given to where landing pads should go, and where recharging would take place. It was suggested that landing spots could be created on parking lots or station rooftops.

    The expert panel takes questions from the audience

  4. Safety and security issues surrounding drones must be addressed. A number of attendees expressed concerns at the growing number of airprox incidents and warned of the dangers of large drones malfunctioning in cities and injuring the public. Greater restrictions on drone use around airports would be welcomed. In addition, there were worries about the potential use of drones to commit terrorist attacks. Such an incident, it was observed, could set back the use of drones for years as a result of security restrictions and public concerns. Improved geofencing technology might be necessary to protect public spaces from such criminality.
  5. International factors will be influential. Several delegates noted that drone use would ultimately be affected by international developments and standards. It was observed that drones could become increasingly specialized for different niches, and it was possible that the developing world and remote regions would lead innovation in this area. In terms of regulation, it was likely that international standards would be developed and regulators faced a difficult job in the meantime balancing public concerns and enabling beneficial uses of this technology.