Saving lives and money - how public sector drone use is taking off

Innovators in the public sector are already beginning to use drones to enhance the capabilities and efficiency of public services, but there is still a great deal of untapped potential.

With debates often dominated by Gatwick-induced public negativity about drones, and Government in the process of legislating for new police powers to tackle their misuse, the significant potential that drones offer society when used safely is often overlooked.

Amongst the British public, the best known users of drones are hobbyists and the military. However, as drones become less expensive and thus more accessible, the wide range of their new-found applications by innovative public servants also continues to grow. In fact, over a third of the drone fleet by 2030 is predicted to be used by public bodies. This blogpost therefore takes a closer look at the opportunities and use cases for the integration of drone technology in public sector services.



1. Emergency services

Despite speculation about future dangers of drones – ranging from the capabilities of swarms through to an extreme example of last year’s horror film about a ‘serial killer drone’ - the reality is that many drone applications are already being used to increase safety, and even save lives. Not only are drones increasingly replacing dangerous work, but as of October 2019, at least 279 lives were recorded to have been saved by drones.

This figure is explained largely by the exponential increase in drone use by emergency services. Leading manufacturer DJI reported last year that adoption rates among public safety were ‘skyrocketing’, with a 500% increase in adoption over the past four years.

One of the largest adopters has been police forces. As well as offering the advantage of a birds-eye view from which to conduct surveillance or a search, adding thermal imaging capabilities can significantly enhance effectiveness. Recent high profile successes include Lincolnshire Police deploying their thermal imaging drone to find a 16 year old rape victim and her alleged attacker within minutes of the 999 call.

As of 2018, more than two thirds of the UK’s almost fifty police forces already operated drones, and police representatives forecast continued growth in the years to come. Sergeant Ed Delderfield, Project Lead within the Drone Team at Lincolnshire Police, has said that "drones provide a more flexible and cost-effective air asset compared with the National Police Air Service helicopter alternative. As technology and legislation advances, I can see unmanned aircraft taking over".

Beyond the police, NESTA’s recent Flying High Challenge project has made clear the usefulness of drones to other emergency services, including the first trials of drones being used to carry out medical deliveries within London and across the Solent. This basis is now being built upon further, with local authorities bidding this month for Department for Transport funding to enable drone deliveries between hospitals, GP surgeries and hospital labs in the south of England.

With 80% of the UK public reportedly supportive of emergency services using drones, it seems that this will be one of the first and easiest routes for drones to enter into commonplace public sector use.


2. Environmental monitoring and protection

Drones are also being used by governments for environmental monitoring and protection, both for the sake of conservation of local natural habitats as well as the protection of nearby residents. The technology has already been trialled and subsequently deployed in a range of applications including reduction of poaching, glacial feature modelling, species counting and identification, and assessing flood vulnerability.

In addition, in the event of a natural disaster (or a human-induced disaster, such as an oil spill), drones can be deployed to gather information more effectively and thus make improved decisions about how best to mitigate risk and potential damages.

Ambitious environmental strategies such as reforestation are also made increasingly possible by drones. In what is up to ten times faster and five times cheaper than previous hand-planting methods, a single drone is estimated to have potential to plant 100,000 trees per day, with one drone engineer able to oversee six drones.

A final illustrative example is drones’ usefulness in protecting against soil run-off. The UK’s Environment Agency is using drones to monitor soil protection, and locate and penalise the farmers who allow their soil to run off their fields. Such bad farming practices cost more than £1.2 billion per year due to clogging rivers and contributing to floods and previously, the Environment Agency was only able to check around 0.5% of farms each year to attempt to combat this.


3. Infrastructure maintenance, inspection and security

Drones can also be used to inspect infrastructure and identify maintenance issues before they occur, which is particularly useful in high risk facilities such as power stations or nuclear facilities and remote infrastructure, such as pipelines, powerlines and pumping stations. What is more, they do so at as little as 20% of the cost of helicopter patrols and 40% of the cost of foot patrols.

Leading such initiatives in the UK is a government Pathfinder project that has brought together energy industry players with public sector authorities to conduct trial drone operations that are due to be completed by August 2020. The project aims to establish a framework for Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) drone operations to conduct infrastructure surveys across electricity and gas networks, thereby improving accuracy, reducing cost and improving safety.

Local authorities in the UK are also catching on to drone applications in this area: for example, during Northumberland County Council’s recent construction of a new interchange at Morpeth Northern Bypass, drones were used to provide monthly aerial reports of the project. Gary Mills, the Project Manager at the County Council, has explained the value of the footage in the project board meetings to assess progress and for use on the scheme’s website.

Network Rail has been another key stakeholder in the adoption of drone technology across the UK. The arm’s length public body of the Department for Transport has a fleet of 24 drones (and growing) which it uses as a “cost effective solution” to survey long stretches of the railway nationwide for maintenance purposes or following an incident.

Drones are also increasingly being recognised for their capacity to assist in the infrastructure required to deliver connectivity. With governments across the globe under pressure to ensure connectivity across urban and rural areas of their countries alike, a drone-enabled solution looks increasingly inviting. Remote areas of Scotland and Wales have seen drones help engineers lay broadband cables across geographic obstacles. Openreach engineers reportedly found drones to be a more reliable way of getting a cable across a river in place of previous methods such as “attaching cables to fishing lines, golf balls and even hammers”, which were described as proving “hit and miss”.


Why are drones not already more prevalent in the public sector?

As is evident from the three use cases detailed above - and the many more that already exist - the potential for drone use in the public sector is huge. However, with ongoing changes to regulation and the continued diversity of approaches in the public sector, it remains to be seen whether the impressive forecasts for public sector uptake of drone technology will be fully realised in the coming years. Nevertheless, the technology and its vast potential is certainly there for the taking.

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