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London drones and planning: what does the future hold?

13.03.2019

Drone technology and capability has the potential to transform the way we live in London and across the UK. The potential falls broadly into two categories: cargo transportation and passenger transportation.

Drone transportation is already being trialled across the world. In Lugano and elsewhere in Switzerland, drones are being used to convey medical supplies, for example between laboratories and hospitals. In Singapore, passenger drone transportation is forecast to be active by 2021. Whether for cargo or passengers or both, electric drone transportation can completely overhaul a city's sustainability credentials.

In the UK, the drone industry will of course need to satisfactorily address a variety of regulatory regimes, and London's airspace is particularly crowded and complicated. The challenges from a planning perspective, particularly for a city like London, are potentially complex.

But in a country that prides itself as being a global leader in innovation and emerging technologies there is an opportunity for the capital to be at the forefront of a rapidly developing drones market.

Drones are already used in the real estate sector to inspect buildings, with for example heat-seeking drones able to identify damp in buildings, saving time, money, and increasing safety. With an agile approach and cooperation between planning authorities, national government and industry there is an opportunity to harness much more far-reaching economic, environmental and social benefits.

Imagine for example the benefits to the emergency services and health service providers if vital equipment and supplies could quickly and safely be transported across London, avoiding the log-jammed streets below. Or the ability to deliver commercial products, and people, quickly and efficiently to locations in a clean, safe and environmentally-friendly way.

The planning system should be ready to grasp such challenges and opportunities in the near future. Striking balances is something the planning system should be well-equipped to do and do well.

Drones have an excellent safety record and numerous efficiency benefits for business. They are flexible and have the ability to reduce air pollution dramatically in city centres such as London. The balance between innovation, security, and safety, so that the multi-faceted benefits can be realised, will be a test for modern planning in London and beyond.

The Department for Transport in January 2019 published its response to the consultation Taking Flight: The Future of Drones in the UK. Aptly-titled Moving Britain Ahead, it indicated a determination to provide the "right platform" for drone technology to ensure that regulation supports and anticipates future innovation.

The 2018 GLA Transport Strategy anticipates the development of policy and proposals relating to drones in a way that enhances the public transport experience for Londoners.

Skyports, a dynamic UK start-up backed by US investment, has purchased options on a wide range of London rooftops including multi-storey car parks, office buildings and railway stations. Skyports is working alongside London architects Barr Gazetas on the design of rooftop ports, known as 'vertiports'.

In the short-term, drone technology and capability will need to win over public opinion and find further form in planning policy and regulation; beyond that, however, it can reimagine and enhance the way we live in the London and the UK.

Tom Cosgrove QC and Ed Grant are specialist planning barristers and together with Iceni Projects are advising Skyports.