£10m upgrade to UK’s recreational aircraft needed to unlock drone economy

Recreational aircraft will need to be made “electronically visible” to drones for their full potential to be unlocked in the UK, according to a report by the think tank The Entrepreneurs Network.

Drones are already being used in several trials for making deliveries such as transporting Covid-19 medical supplies and Royal Mail post to remote UK islands.

The 'Digitise the Skies' report suggests that the government would need to fund around £10m worth of upgrades to make the UK’s recreational aircraft electronically visible to drones in order to overcome safety issues.

The report also calculates that doing so would “unlock” the UK’s drone economy, which could be worth £42bn by 2030, a separate report by PwC has claimed.

Currently, drones and commercial manned aircraft are made visible to each other and to novel traffic control systems by small onboard electronic devices that communicate their location to minimise the risk of collision.

The UK’s 20,000 recreational aircraft - which typically operate in the same sub-10,000-feet 'Class G' airspace as drones - are not required to be electronically conspicuous, which makes mass rollout of commercial drone applications unviable on safety grounds. The Entrepreneurs Network believes that upgrades to the aircraft could be made at a cost of around £500 each, or £10m in total - a bill that taxpayers would be obliged to fund.

“Unmanned passenger transportation is still some way off, but drones have the potential to make an enormous contribution to the UK economy. It’s ridiculous that further testing - and ultimately mass adoption - of potentially hugely impactful applications could be held up or prevented altogether, and the economic benefit lost, as a result of something so trivial,” said Sam Dumitriu, the report’s co-author.

Digitise the Skies highlights a wealth of potential drone applications, including inspecting airports, railways, roads, buildings, powerlines and other critical infrastructure, where using drones would dramatically decrease costs and improve efficiency by enabling problems to be identified and resolved more quickly.

Drones could also cut costs and reduce environmental impacts in agriculture by enabling specific crops in need of special attention to be more easily identified.

Their use in delivering food, medicine or post to hard-to-reach areas could also be greatly expanded. Even in densely-populated and well-connected areas, drones could help the NHS move testing kids, vaccines, blood bags or even live human organs more quickly to where they are urgently needed, the report suggested.

“The Department for Transport was already offering recreational flyers a 50 per cent rebate on electronic conspicuity devices in a scheme that expires at the end of March. Our proposal is merely a low-cost expansion and extension of this to solve an immediate roadblock to important innovation. This would just be toppling the first domino in the chain, but the government will struggle to find anywhere else where an investment on this scale could deliver such an enormous return at 420,000 per cent,” Dumitriu added.

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