Nesta’s UK drone industry research reveals huge potential market opportunity

Analysis carried out as part of the Flying High programme, run by Nesta’s Challenge Prize Centre, has found a thriving drone sector in the UK, with a diverse ecosystem of products and services showing that the UK has a strong foundation to build on to be a global leader in the space.

Flying High, which explores how cities can shape the future of drone use, has created an interactive visualisation showing the locations of civic and commercial drone industry players in the UK, categorised according to organisation and technology type.

This is based on the most comprehensive database of the UK industry compiled to date. Over 700 companies that are researching, developing or offering drone-related products and services in the UK, as well as research institutes and industry bodies, have been comprehensively categorised and displayed in an interactive map.

This research uncovers a complex and surprisingly large UK drone sector. To capitalise on these strengths and position the UK as a global leader in drone services, Nesta found strong agreement from central government, technology experts, industry leaders, academics and regulators on the next steps needed – namely, supporting infrastructure and the space to safely experiment and test new technology in cities. An anticipatory approach to regulation that fosters innovation within the context of urban airspace will also be essential, coupled with public engagement to shape the market and alignment among key stakeholders in government, local authorities, the technology sector and public services.

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To develop the drone industry map, data was provided by Glass, a London-based startup that has developed AI technology that reads the web. Glass identified companies in the sector based on the text on their websites and Nesta supplemented this with further research and data from Gateway to Research on recipients of government funding for drone projects.

The database includes a number of innovative startups and SMEs; the UK’s current strengths in the sector appear to lie mainly in autonomy and data analytics, which together make up a significant proportion of the 155 UK technology developers identified.

The large number of companies indicates that the UK has fertile ground to build on: this includes 20 academic and research institutes with drone-focused research groups and Gateway to Research data shows that over £78 million in research grants for drone-related projects has been allocated from UK government funding in the last six years. 

Tris Dyson, Executive Director of the Challenge Prize Centre, said:

“Drones are an emerging technology and much of their promise lies in the future. But there is already a significant drone economy in the UK today and much of the future economic opportunity will come from these smaller companies and institutions that we have identified in our research. 

“In order to ensure this potential is realised, these companies need more than just technology push funding. In the first phase of Flying High, we identified a number of barriers to entry that are currently inhibiting market development and the approach needed to unlock them via subsequent phases of the programme to enable testing and development of new models of urban airspace usage.” 

Challenge prizes, which reward the first or best organisation to solve a technical challenge, can put the UK ahead on drones by forming a continued programme of public and political engagement while driving mission-driven innovation to address the main barriers to drone development by looking holistically at the urban systems needed to enable the technology to progress. By empowering cities to work with industry to test solutions in real-world urban settings, the UK can position itself to take the lead in its development and therefore in the economic benefits- according to recent research from PwC, drone technology has the potential to increase UK GDP by £42 billion (or 2%) by 2030. Of the 76,000 drones that they project will be flying across UK skies by 2030, over a third (36%) will used by the public sector, including for defence, health and education, contributing to a safer UK. 

An interactive version of the map can be viewed here

The full report is available online

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