If not as notorious as face recognition technologies, drones are certainly one of the most controversial AI technologies. And that’s for understandable reasons -- if in doubt, ask anyone who tried flying out of Gatwick Airport before Christmas last year, or even more unfortunately, recall the recent context in which drones pop up.
Although drones often stir up heated public debates, there are also quite a number of ‘good business applications’, which could also help mitigate societal challenges we globally face.
Drone capabilities continue to increase and diversify particularly thanks to investment in areas of geospatial data, as a new report published by the UK Government’s Geospatial Commission highlights. Beyond drones, Report provides the current state of play, emerging trends and the future potential of geospatial data in eight key novel technologies.
UK Government set up the Geospatial Commission in 2017 with £80 million of funding over time ‘to drive the move to use this data more productively’, and it shows. UK is currently the second most developed geospatial leader in the world, only behind the US.*
It just makes sense to suggest that trends emerging in the UK are likely to trailblaze developments globally. Drones are currently deployed in areas such as mapping & ISR (intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition) and beyond-visual-line-of-sight flights. But the growth of new sensor capabilities in these systems, the report notes, will increase their value to the geospatial sector even further.
Remotely Piloted Aircrafts (RPA) is a key emerging development, which of course is at the heart of the controversial aspect of drones. But that is not the end of the story. Commission’s report notes that there is much future potential in areas such as swarm capabilities, autonomous mission configurations & management, urban traffic management, delivery drones, and passenger drones.
Societal impacts are likely to be immense, especially in areas that might not seem obvious at first. In the UK, ‘the most significant source of water pollution’ is currently farming, according to the 2018 report by the UK Government's Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA). 2018 European Commission report on drones in agriculture identifies drones as a viable candidate to address agricultural water use challenges, but the applications remain rather limited -- at least for now.
Drones in agriculture are already being trialled globally, from El Salvador to South Africa. Earlier this year, the UK’s first crop-spraying drone was put to the test in a Norfolk wheat field, paving the path for future applications.
But farming is just one of the many areas of application. Earlier PwC report on drones predicts £42bn net impact on the UK economy by 2030 with £16bn net cost savings from uptake of drone technologies. We should see 76,000 drones in use across UK skies by 2030, according to PwC predictions. And that’s just the beginning.
Let us take a quick step back and look at the broad picture. To accelerate the progress and keep the dialogue open so beneficial uses of drones (or any emerging tech) come to the fore, we in the knowledge exchange industry have a role to play.
As a leading country in emerging tech, not just the geospatial data or drones, the UK has surely a lot to share with the rest of the world. As we are increasingly incorporating various considerations around the emerging tech in our work at Tekiu, not to mention the vast experience employed by our Newton Fund companies, we find that the key players in the UK are admirably eager to share their success with others from different sectors globally. But we also find that they are also equally keen to learn from them.
Helping make those connections that would otherwise not exist is what makes us passionate as we actively support the agenda of socially beneficial innovation both in the UK and beyond.
Ekin C Genç is a consultant at Tekiu mainly working on T-DEB, Tekiu’s Newton Fund project facilitating partnerships in innovation between Turkey and the UK. He is based at the University of Oxford, studying the social implications of emerging technology. Previously, he has worked in think tanks and consulting in Brussels, Istanbul and Washington, D.C.
*: GeoBuiz. 2019. Geospatial Industry Outlook and Readiness Index.