Financial services giant PwC has published a report exploring the potential benefits of drone technologies to the UK economy.
The increasing adoption of drones by UK businesses and public services will have a significant impact at both financial and societal levels, says PwC. The study, Skies Without Limits, claims that by 2030 drones will bring about a £42 billion increase in UK GDP, with 76,000 drones operating in UK skies and a total of 628,000 jobs in the drone-related economy.
An antidote to the UK’s productivity problem?
According to the Office for National Statistics, in 2016, UK GDP per hour worked showed a productivity gap of over 15 percent compared to the rest of the G7. UK productivity was 25.6 percent lower than that of Germany, and 22 percent lower than the United States, for example.
For all of the sectors analysed in the PwC report, the main economic impact comes not from using drones to do new things, but from using them to perform routine tasks at higher speeds and with greater efficiency.
Automating routine tasks from deliveries to infrastructure inspections could, depending on the use case, improve safety, remove the need to put people at risk, gather more actionable data and – perhaps most importantly – free people from monotonous tasks and allow them to focus on more rewarding, value-adding work.
In keeping with that assessment, PwC expects sectors that involve the most physical movement and operational processes to enjoy the largest productivity gains from drones.
The report projects total cost savings for the UK economy of up to £16 billion from the adoption of drone technology, with an overall increase of multi-factor productivity of 3.2 percent.
The rise in GDP and job creation from drone adoption will likely steal the headlines, but the substantial productivity gains should not be overlooked.
- Read more: PwC launches specialist UK drone unit
Public sector gains depend on public perception
The public sector has most to gain from widespread drone adoption. According to PwC, of the 76,000 drones predicted to be in UK skies by 2030, more than one-third (36 percent) could be deployed by local authorities and government agencies.
Applications could vary from medical logistics – such as the kind of operations being pioneered by US startup ZipLine – and support for emergency services and first responders, to critical infrastructure maintenance and engineering.
Drones are already saving lives around the world, despite relatively low levels of adoption among police, firefighters, and search and rescue teams.
- Read more: 65 lives saved by drones last year, says DJI
However, in order for the public to reap the rewards of aerial robotics, the technology needs to have wider backing and a more positive public perception. The progress of adequate regulations relies to an extent on these factors, according to Elaine Whyte, PwC’s UK drones leader.
“I envisage that the advantages of drone technology will be well established within the decade,” she said, “not only for business purposes, but also for helping to protect our society – for example, through being used by the emergency services.
“There is a need for current UK drone regulation to advance to see the estimations in our report become a reality, but it’s positive to see the government already taking proactive steps to address this with the draft Drones Bill.
“In order to realise the full potential from drones, the immediate focus must be on developing society’s confidence in the technology to help drive acceptance and increase adoption,” she added. “While drones are often currently viewed as more of a toy, by combining this emerging technology with the right business understanding and human insight, there is a huge opportunity to help solve some of businesses’ and society’s most important problems.”
UK aviation minister Baroness Sugg has suggested that these concerns will in part be eased by the incoming Drones Bill, which seeks to put measures in place to enable more advanced aerial applications.
“PwC’s research demonstrates the significant economic benefits that drone technology can bring to the UK,” she said. “And they are already improving people’s lives – helping the emergency services and keeping key national infrastructure like rail lines and power stations safe.
“Excitingly this is just the beginning, which is why government is doing everything possible to harness the huge future potential through our Industrial Strategy, and the Drones Bill.”
Internet of Business says
Alongside improving its flatlining productivity, one of the key challenges facing the UK is a tabloid media culture that sees robotics, AI, and drones primarily through the filter of Terminators and mass unemployment, rather than focusing on – or even understanding – the critical roles that new technologies will play in the country’s long-term economic viability.
The government understands these issues very well, as its AI and robotics strategies and Sector Deals make clear. However, it is not investing nearly enough money, in relative global terms, in making its ambitions real.
For example, a single Chinese city, Tianjin, recently committed more than $16 billion to a local AI and robotics strategy – 12 times the total amount that the British government claims to have raised for the UK’s entire Sector Deal for AI, most of which comes from private companies, not Whitehall. Similar ambitions are being backed by billions of dollars of investment right across China.
The British government’s own contribution to the Sector Deal, roughly £300 million, is chickenfeed compared to that, and may simply be replacing EU funding that will be lost after Brexit.
Another challenge facing the UK is its conservative aerospace culture, in which drone developers are under represented in key organisations, if they are represented at all.
That may change in the near future, not because of the humanitarian, economic, and public good that may arise from robots taking to the skies, but because of their military potential.
Once manufacturers such as BAe start pursuing automated fighter planes, and more, the aerospace industry will follow suit, principally to protect its own commercial interests.
Additional reporting: Chris Middleton.