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Where Next for the UK’s Drone Industry?

For years, the drone market was largely reserved for the photography enthusiasts and had yet to break into the mainstream. Now analysts predict that the drone market could be worth billions. Not only that, but it’ll be commercial drones that take the market to the next level, and it’s our very own Great Britain that has the potential to become the drone industry’s world leader.

The US certainly would’ve been the industry leader if it wasn’t for the formidable US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) applying strict drone regulations. For example, a world where your next Amazon order is delivered to your door in minutes by an unmanned drone could one day be possible – but it’s much more likely to be in the UK than the US!

So, why could the UK be the leader?

Just before Christmas last year, Amazon made its first UK commercial drone delivery: a 13-minute flight to drop off a television-streaming stick and a bag of popcorn to a customer near Cambridge. Unfortunately for American customers, drone-based delivery services are currently illegal, so the odds are stacked against Amazon (or any company for that matter) launching such a service in the US.

Unlike the US, however, a drone-delivery service in the UK wouldn’t be illegal – as their test proved. However, current regulations exclude drones from anywhere the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) deems a “crowded area”, meaning that a nationwide drone-delivery in the UK is currently not feasible.

Still, with proper UK drone regulation – such as a database of approved drones (like the DVLA but for drones) – it would mean that drones could be externally monitored to make sure they adhere to the no-fly zones, so anything is possible.

The UK’s more lenient drone restrictions have already proven their worth in the filming and photography industry. Until recently, television and film accounted for a massive 75% of the UK’s commercial drone activity, but the tides are starting to change.

Property and construction are now the two biggest sectors – drones are being used to inspect buildings, wind turbines and pipelines, for land surveying and mapping, and even agriculture. The statistics speak for themselves – in 2014 there were only 150 UK building and surveying companies who were offering drone services. By January this year, there were 2,380.

Drone industry
Drones could become the preferred tool for surveying construction sites. Image credit: 3D Robotics.

Where else does drones’ potential lie?

Of course, TV and film still account for a substantial proportion of the UK’s drone use. Programmes such as Top Gear and Great British Bake Off are among the many that have used drone-shot footage in the past.

Some new engineering businesses have also recently been emerging in the drone industry. OpenWorks, based in Northumberland, have developed a system called the ‘SkyWall’ counter-drone which many military and security companies have already expressed interest in. The counter-drone is a launcher that fires a net into the sky to capture a rogue drone and land it in a parachute. As you can see from the video below, it’s pretty impressive!

Altogether, it seems the UK has all the right ingredients to be the drone capital of the world. If UK drone regulations adapt quickly, we could be just years away from a potential golden age for the drone industry. With pioneers such as OpenWorks, Amazon, and many others driving technology forward, there’s a very real possibility that drones could be Britain’s next billion-pound industry.

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