West Midlands flying high with UK drone technology trial

The West Midlands was today named as one of just five UK locations chosen to explore the future use of drone technology following a successful bid to the Flying High Challenge.

West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) spearheaded the submission for the region to be one of the first places in the country to design ways for drone technology to support local needs.

The bid beat off competition from more than a third of UK cities to win a place on the scheme, run by Nesta's Challenge Prize Centre in partnership with Innovate UK.

Now the region will work alongside Bradford, London, Preston and Southampton with the Flying High team over the next five months to look at how they could use drones in their communities.

From using drones to support public services to the commercial opportunities that might exist, they’ll explore public attitudes, environmental impact, logistics and safety of drones operating in complex urban environments.

Each location boasts credentials in areas from aerospace to robotics and autonomous vehicles, and many have unique approaches to public engagement and local economic development, making them exceptionally well placed to deliver on both the technical and societal aspects of the programme. 

Cllr Roger Lawrence, WMCA lead member for transport, said: “Positioned as we are in the West Midlands as a large region and strategic centre, we can offer a uniquely diverse consortium for this trial.

“We will be talking to people in all our different communities and environments about our ambitions for drone use - not just as a strategic exercise, but a deliverable reality, aiming to strike the necessary balance between ambition and regulation.

“We already have a strong regional stake in unmanned aerial vehicle technology surrounding the world class ‘UK City of Culture 2021’ and Commonwealth Games events.

“Current innovative research and development across the region offers other potential areas of synergy with Flying High, including a cutting-edge testbed for connected and autonomous vehicles.”

The region’s 2.8 million residents are spread throughout the cities of Birmingham, Coventry and Wolverhampton, the Black Country with its industrial heritage and major regeneration ambitions, and the diverse surrounding countryside.

There are two international airports, several universities and multiple collaborating local authorities.

Nishita Dewan, Programme Lead for the Flying High Challenge, said: “The entries to the Flying High Challenge showed the huge appetite from cities across the UK to develop models for drones that work for their people and communities.

“We saw diverse and creative uses for drones such as boosting wi-fi and helping find lost children at the seaside, to the support for key public services such as delivering AEDs and inspecting critical infrastructure.

“Cities represent an important medium, through which we can understand the public’s needs, both for Flying High and our partners, BEIS, CAA and the DfT.

“We want to co-create a solution that understands the needs of local people and the future city they want to live in.

“In the subsequent phases of the Flying High Challenge, the five cities that have been selected will become testbeds for future demonstrations.”

Aviation Minister Baroness Sugg said: “Drones are already improving people’s lives – helping the emergency and rescue services, and keeping key national infrastructure like rail lines and power stations safe.

“But this is just the beginning, which is why government is doing everything possible to harness the huge potential through our Industrial Strategy and Drones Bill.

“It’s fantastic that this pioneering programme will enable cities to play a direct role in shaping how drones can be used to transform their public services and unlock business opportunities across the UK predicted to be worth billions.”

Andrew Carter, Chief Executive of thinktank Centre for Cities, said: “The increasing use of drones and other new technology will bring huge changes to UK cities in the coming years, and places which adapt and take advantage of these developments will have a better chance of prospering in future.

“The Flying High Challenge is a great opportunity to examine how different cities can use drones to address the distinct challenges and opportunities they face.

“It will offer valuable lessons for places across the country on how we can new technology to strengthen local economies and make our cities better places to live and work.”

Andrew Tyrer, Robotics Challenge Director, Industrial Strategy Research Fund (Innovate UK), said: “How people think about and use drones has changed beyond recognition in the last ten years, and there is genuine excitement about how they could revolutionise our lives, jobs and economy.

“To realise that potential, we need to make sure they can operate safely in the toughest and most complex environments, and that’s why we are supporting the Flying High Challenge through the government’s industrial strategy.” 

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