UK autonomous vehicle market given boost by COVID-19 crisis

As Thomas Neubauer highlighted in a recent guest post, unmanned autonomous vehicles (UAVs) – otherwise known as ‘drones’ – have been used in a wide variety of applications during the COVID-19 crisis by police forces, medical services and governments. The crisis has accelerated both adoption and innovation in the drone market, proving its potential across the world.
In the UK, for example, transport secretary Grant Shapps announced on 24 April 2020 that the government would fast-track drone trials between mainland UK and the Isle of Wight. Vital ferry services between Portsmouth and Southampton and the island have been massively reduced due to the crisis, so the government is looking to use drones to ensure essential medical supplies are delivered to the island’s sole hospital, St Marys.
The trial, which is the first in the UK, will involve double-engine, fixed-winged Windracers Ultra UAV, designed and built by the University of Southampton. It can carry up to 220lb (100kg) in a space the size of an estate car boot and has an operational capability of more than 620 miles (1,000km) – more than enough to make the journey to and from the island.
Funded by the Department for Transport to the tune of £28 million, the trial is part of the Solent Transport Future Transport Zone (FTZ) project. Solent Transport, in partnership with the University of Southampton and Windracers, is advancing part of its four-year drone project, part of which involves developing an air traffic management system to oversee the safe movement of both manned and unmanned aircraft in shared airspace.
Initially, the UAV will be carrying loads of no more than 40kg and the type of cargo will depend on the needs of the hospital and be subject to permissions granted by the Civil Aviation Authority. The government expects there to be about four flights per day, with PPE being some of the first supplies delivered. Two safety pilots – one at each end – will oversee flights, with the flight time expected to take no more than 10 minutes.
From the £28 million granted to the project, £8 million has been set aside to develop the UK’s first unmanned traffic-management system (UTM) to integrate drone flights into normal air traffic control. In the next three months, however, flights will take place without a UTM being in place. Instead, a “temporary danger area” will be set up to separate drones from other air traffic. This is aided by the reduction in airtraffic due to the COVID-19 crisis, but as things get back to normal a UTM will be required to ensure safe use.
Tom Cherrett, Professor of Logistics and Transport Management at the University of Southampton said: “The concept of using drones to deliver medical supplies has been proven in countries such as Rwanda, where they’re helping to save lives by reaching isolated communities quickly and cheaply. The research we’re embarking on over the next four years will investigate how such unmanned systems could be used in shared airspace and integrated within existing logistics operations in the UK. Originally the trials were not due to start until next year, but we’ve brought these forward, recognising that the Windracers ULTRA platform could provide an additional service to the NHS on the Isle of Wight should they need it as part of their Covid-19 response.”
In the future, other time-critical NHS supplies – such as blood and organs – could be delivered using this method.
But aerial drones are not the only autonomous vehicles that have seen a boost in the UK due to the current crisis. Forecasts predict that 20% of shopping deliveries will be by drones or other UVs by 2030, but this is not news in Milton Keynes where the Co-op has been delivering shopping by self-driving robot (UV) since 2018.
Made by a company called Starship, the UVs can carry around two bags of shopping or 10kg from the Co-op’s Monkston warehouse to customers’ homes. These UVs travel at around 4mph and use pavements – they can even safely cross roads at zebra crossings – navigating by using a camera and radar.  Customers can even track the robot’s progress via a smartphone app.
Starship has now expanded the range of the service, with the company’s Andrew Curtis noting that the expansion will help ease congestion in the town centre from delivery vehicles and customers’ cars. The company normally charges £1 to deliver shopping but has been delivering to health care workers free of charge. “Right now we’re offering free delivery to all NHS workers within the community. We want to make life a little bit easier for these people in these very, very stressful times,” said Starship’s Henry Harris-Burland.
In fact, Milton Keynes’ enthusiasm for drones extends beyond shopping deliveries. The local council is using UAVs for mapping, planning, street naming and numbering, and emergency planning. With 29,000 new houses planned for the city in the next 10 years, the council is challenged with managing the rapid expansion. However, it is mindful of residents’ concerns and emphasises that its use of drones will be fully GDPR compliant. “There’s always a risk of complaint from the public about privacy and safety,” it says in a report “But in the eventuality of this happening, we’re confident in our ability to evidence the safe flying of the UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle). All flights will be subject to a rigorous risk assessment prior to approval.”
While getting your shopping delivered by a land-based autonomous vehicle appears popular with the public, not all use of drone tech has been uncontroversial. Amongst the most controversial was Derbyshire police’s use of drones to film people walking in the Peak District National Park who appeared to be legally exercising and keeping a safe social distance. While Surrey and Sussex Police have used drones to approach groups of people and order them to go home. Other forces have used automatic number plate recognition and the Police National Computer to spot vehicles driving outside the region in which they’re registered – stopping vehicles and ordering people to go home.
UK campaigners are warning about the expansion of surveillance techniques under the guise of COVID-19 compliance. The human rights group Liberty, for example, has said that authorities should focus on voluntary compliance “rather than ramping up coercive and oppressive tactics”. The group warned that “overzealous” policing would undermine public trust in authorities. They also said that “normalising” survelliance tactics in the UK could have far-reaching consequences beyond the current crisis.
Omnisperience View
Sometimes even very promising technologies take a long time to take off, requiring a catalyst event to create the right conditions for adoption. This certainly seems to be the case for UAVs and other unmanned vehicles, which are proving their worth during the COVID-19 crisis.
However, it is not just important for something to work. For usage to take off it has to have public buy-in.
As useful as drones and UVs are, it’s important for companies and authorities to recognise that the current tolerant mood of the public will not remain after the crisis is over. Where there might be some general unease at the prospect of our police forces spying on citizens, and concern amongst both campaigners and lawyers as to whether the police are exceeding their powers, once the crisis is over concerns will become more vocal and more widespread. This could lead to a backlash against the technology due to its misuse – or even perceived misuse – and cutting of legal corners by authorities. Maintaining compliance with GDPR, and being mindful of safety concerns and the citizen’s right to privacy, are absolutely essential in building the public trust needed for the long-term future of this technology.