Amazon has put the spotlight on the future use of drones, for parcel delivery. But could they be used in the UK or is regulation holding back progress?
I have to say that I find this sort of stuff enormously exciting. It's where sci-fi and technology meet, but as every sci-fi fan knows politics and policy also have an important role to play in how the use of technology unfolds.
The use of drones in civil air space is very heavily regulated in the UK. It's the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) that makes the rules and even flying a test drone above a certain weight has heavy restrictions on it.
The UK is a world leader in aerospace and autonomous systems and we've certainly led the world as an aviation nation. So, will we lead the way in the use of civil airspace drones and autonomous systems? Whether or not we do, isn't just down to getting the gadgets right, the regulatory environment is also key. The Government needs to pay attention to this and should, in my view, encourage regulators to be more ambitious to allow UK industry to develop the use of civil drones, personalised air vehicles and potentially automated cars.
Regulation can be a barrier to the development and uptake of new technology. For example, it's extremely difficult for researchers to even test fly unmanned drones in the UK, which has led to companies moving sites to Australia and the US. Aberporth in Wales is a relatively new test site, but it's heavily restricted and difficult to access. Making test flights very difficult to do, adding to the expense of research in this area.
Safety is obviously key, but real consideration needs to be given on how greater use of civil airspace can be made. If the UK can crack this nut and with its exemplary safety and regulatory record, it could be the UK approach that is adopted the world over. This presents huge potential for all those involved in any aspect of civil drone use and development. From vehicle manufacturers and their providers, surveillance equipment, data processing and regulatory advisers.
This is where Government leadership and ambition could make all the difference and it would be great to see the sights of regulators like the Civil Aviation Authority raised to support the development of drones in civil airspace.
Ok, so maybe Amazon's story is more about publicity in the run up to Christmas and demonstrating how in the future you might be able to order on-line on Christmas eve and still get presents on time. But it also gives a glimpse of how technology is changing the world around us.
If the UK can get the regulatory environment right, we've got some great UK innovators, apprentices and companies and that increases the chances of technology being adopted in the UK first of all. The Government and regulators have a clear role to play. I hope they have got their eyes firmly on the future and are working to ensure UK leadership in this area.