Fleets of civilian drones could soon dart through the skies of UK cities, delivering urgent medical supplies, easing traffic congestion and helping emergency services, according to a Government-backed scheme.
Local authorities are being asked to help come up with suggestions for how drones can “meet the needs and realities of urban life”, as use of the unmanned craft quickly grows.
Five UK towns and cities will be chosen to work with engineers and planners to eventually become test beds for new civilian uses of drones, with the first ideas taking to the air in 2019.
The scheme hopes the UK will become a world leader in shaping the burgeoning technology, as it moves out of the hands of hobbyists and the military and into widespread civilian use.
Councils are being asked to take part in the Flying High Challenge as the Department for Transport said it would pass a new drone safety law to regulate the craft and prevent accidents.
The draft Drone Bill which will be published in spring 2018 will give police powers to order operators to ground drones and will demand operators pass safety tests. Any law is also expected to ensure drone-free zones around airports and may suggest height limits.
A string of near misses with aircraft have raised concerns about the safety of growing numbers of unmanned craft in the sky. There have also been concerns raised about them breaching people’s privacy.
Baroness Sugg, Aviation Minister, said, “Drones have great potential and we want to do everything possible to harness the benefits of this technology as it develops.
She said: “These new laws strike a balance, to allow the vast majority of drone users to continue flying safely and responsibly, while also paving the way for drone technology to revolutionise businesses and public services.”
One suggested use for drones is carrying out safety inspections on tall buildings, and towers. Network Rail already uses them to scan and monitor lengths of track.
They could also soar ahead of congested roads to reach accidents and incidents and evaluate the scene before emergency services arrive.
Drones fitted with infrared sensors could also help firefighters spot people trapped in blazes, or better direct hoses. A drone supplied by Kent Fire and Rescue was used to survey the ruins of Grenfell Tower after its fire.
Unmanned aircraft are already being used to ferry blood stocks and drugs to remote clinics and hospitals in parts of Africa and could do the same in the UK.
Amazon has already vowed to revolutionise the delivery business with its own fleet of drones dropping off purchases to a customer’s door.
Craft could also monitor traffic and pollution.
Tris Dyson, of the Nesta innovation foundation running the scheme, said: “If we are going to have drones in our towns and cities they must be fit for our society.
“By finding uses for the technology — beyond toys for hobbyists or used in conflict — the UK can establish itself as a world leader in drones.
“We need to commit to finding approaches that work at the local level and meet the needs of people without risk to public safety or nuisance.”