What the drone industry teaches us about UK R&D

Ajuno Co-founder, Will Barnes, explores the challenges with how we fund and crucially exploit research and development in the UK - drawing insights from a deep dive into the drone industry.
Will Barnes
A drone

Drones are transforming the way that we live our lives. Last month, I was hiking in Snowdonia when a man had collapsed on the path ahead and had stopped breathing. A fellow walker had already called the emergency services and within minutes a drone appeared over the mountain carrying a defibrillator. It lowered its payload down to us on a winch and we were able to quickly stabilise the man ahead of the mountain rescue crew.

Last week, someone had been spotted on the rail line between Bristol and London. There was no way to see what was going on and the line had to be closed. Fortunately, the rail company was able to swiftly deploy a drone to the point of interest, which confirmed the line was now clear. What would have traditionally caused significant delays and disruption across a whole network, affecting thousands of people, was resolved in a few minutes.

Unfortunately, neither of these scenarios actually happened. These are examples of numerous drone applications that hold huge potential to build from current research projects, transforming our lives for the better.

Drones are already delivering benefits across society, supporting emergency service response, enabling inspection of critical net zero infrastructure, and helping us to reduce the cost of our food. However, as I outlined in my recent paper to the Department for Transport's Future Flight Industry Group, the drone industry is on the verge of market and systemic failure.

There are 30,000 out of hospital cardiac arrests each year, with just one in 10 surviving, and 18,517 trespass incidents on the British rail network 2022/23. Drones hold immense opportunity to address hundreds of critical challenges like these, but with an industry on the verge of failure, what should we be doing?

Grounded by funding?

To understand this we need to step back a few years. 2019 saw the start of the Future Flight Challenge (FFC), a £300mil UKRI programme, with £125mil of government funding matched by industry investment to enable the UK to establish as a global pioneer in the 3rd aviation revolution - the first being early flight and the 2nd commercial air travel. This third revolution will see drones (uncrewed aircraft systems) and 'air taxis' (eVTOLs) integrate into our airspace ecosystem. However, the 'big hitting' applications, that require long range drone flight and air taxis operating between cities, are all still being trialled.

The current UKRI funding model is a tried and tested one. You apply for a grant and if successful, your investment is matched by 50-100% of 'eligible costs', based on the company's size and nature. FFC has facilitated creation of world leading consortia that have developed and demonstrated increasingly complex drone and air taxi capabilities, culminating in demonstrations from now until March 2025.

The challenge is that funding like this has to just be the start, a catalyst. By the end of it, a service or product must stand on its own two feet, paid for by a customer - or seek other funding such as venture capital, until this point is achieved. Either way the goal is the same. The end customer, or 'end user', for drone services are organisations like our emergency services or infrastructure companies, like National Grid and Network Rail. The challenge is that they can't justify the cost for a research project that may or may not deliver them any meaningful value - particularly for 'cash strapped' public organisations. They may even struggle to resource any involvement at all.

It's widely accepted across the industry that we haven't reached a point where these developed services will be fully funded by customers in a sustaining manner. Without intervention, this risks large numbers of organisations - that are predominantly research funded - closing shop and with them, the return on the government investment through this programme. So, what intervention should we take and how can we provide end users a more meaningful return sooner?

Funding done differently 

What is clear to me, and many others, is that the industry requires further government support to achieve its goals. This isn’t the failure of the FFC, which has achieved a vast amount; it is a reflection on the complexities of developing services with a novel technology ecosystem and alongside an evolving regulatory landscape.

Critically though, I believe we can’t fund further activity in the same way that we have to date. My proposal is to turn the funding model on its head, and give the funding to end users, rather than industry, as a means to subsidise the drone services they procure. This might start as a significant percentage but can reduce incrementally over the coming years. Crucially, this gives the power to those that pay for these services, to fund the ones they see most value in and influence further development accordingly. It also means that drone services become a line item in their books, that can increase year-on-year as the benefits are understood and communicated across organisations.

Whilst achieving this will no doubt hold commercial and political challenges to overcome, not least in an election year, approaches like this have been demonstrated successfully elsewhere. For example, with the rollout of electric vehicle charging points by local councils, with Made Smarter grants for adoption of robotics in manufacturing and the equivalent in agriculture. We understand the importance of subsiding novel equipment – why not novel services? 

What next? 

It’s clear that drones hold immense potential to continue transforming our lives, but to realise the types of life-saving, life-changing applications I described at the start, we need a new approach to fund the exploitation of research. Critical for the drone industry will be UKRI, the DfT and DSIT considering proposals like mine and others to agree a route forward.

Fundamentally, this isn’t solely about drones; this is about our approach to exploiting all R&D in the UK. Do you recognise these challenges in your industry? And how could end user-centric funding models help you?

To hear from Will, follow him on LinkedIn and check out his recent paper, which builds on the ideas described within this article. If you're interested in how you might explore the use of drones, Airwards, a not-for-profit drone industry catalyst, is hosting an event on 6 June 24 at the Royal Aeronautical Society. More details here.

About Will Barnes

Will Barnes is Co-founder of Ajuno, a chartered engineer and qualified remote pilot and has been operating at the forefront of the drone industry for a decade. He has led teams to deliver UK and world firsts involving rapid development of novel, autonomous systems and complex safety cases. He has enabled UK national infrastructure, Ministry of Defence, emergency services and environmental organisations to successfully adopt leading drone capabilities.

About Ajuno

Ajuno is an innovation consultancy enabling the adoption of novel technologies that save lives and regenerate the planet. Acting as a pathfinder, they navigate the uncertainty and risks of adopting new technologies successfully. Not a traditional consultancy, Ajuno applies a new-era model, drawing on a unique ecosystem and being purpose led in everything they do.

Written by
Will Barnes
Written by
May 3, 2024