The United Kingdom was the place that Amazon turned to when it wanted to test out drone deliveries. It’s now considered the site of the world’s first permanent postal drone delivery service. It’s seen major developments in the ways drones can be detected, as well as how drone pilots can submit requests to fly in otherwise controlled airspace. During the COVID-19 pandemic, it was conducting BVLOS autonomous deliveries of tests and protective equipment (PPE). It even has its own drone superhighway.
The drone market in the United Kingdom has been a powerhouse, and the folks over at Drone Industry Insights sought to understand why. DII is a German-based consulting and analytics group that conducts an annual survey, the latest being the 2023 Drone Industry Survey (you can download the full white paper from DII here). DII’s analysis was based on online survey responses from 1,113 drone industry participants across 85 countries, so — while it’s not necessarily a comprehensive drone market study — it’s a solid glimpse into the DACH regional drone market.
And in that survey, DII honed in on UK data specifically to better understand the UK drone market. After all, the United Kingdom is a big player across the economy as a whole, ranking among the top 10 global economies in terms of real GDP at $3.03 trillion — and unsurprisingly one of the top drone markets. In fact, an estimated 7.3% of the world’s drone companies that were active in 2022 are headquartered in the United Kingdom, according to a separate analysis by DII.
So with that, here are 4 reasons why the United Kingdom has managed to rise to the top of the world’s drone markets:
1. Strong startup culture
Most of the drone companies in the UK aren’t necessarily the giants, but rather startups. In fact, an estimated 84% of the UK’s drone companies have fewer than 50 employees, any of which are drone service providers (meaning companies that conduct drone flights for their work).
One of those startups is Altitude Angel, which was founded in 2014 in Reading, United Kingdom and provides a range of airspace management data and services for drone manufacturers, developers and airspace stakeholders. Among its premiere products is its Drone Assist flight planning app, which relaunched in spring 2023 with a more robust set of industry-ready flight planning tools. Among the new improvements includes a direct connection to Altitude Angel’s UTM platform, offering ‘one-tap flight authorizations at connected airports and facilities not just within the UK, but worldwide.
Altitude Angel is also the company behind “Project Skyway,” which is a drone superhighway spanning 165 miles that links cities and towns throughout the midlands to the southeast of the country, primarily above Reading, Oxford, Milton Keynes, Cambridge, Coventry, and Rugby.
2. Existing businesses that align with drones
The UK’s existing industries align well with areas where drones can provide a strong value proposition. According to the CIA World Factbook, 79.2% of the UK’s GDP comes from services, which include railroad equipment, shipbuilding, aircraft, coal, and petroleum.
Unsurprisingly, those are areas that have seen enormous value from drones.
Among the largest drone companies working in the service provider space (and supporting those industries) is Cyberhawk, which was founded in Scotland in 2008. The company uses drones to conduct aerial surveys and close visual inspections of difficult-to-reach assets, with a focus on sectors including oil, gas, and power generation. In fact, Cyberhawk is considered one of the top three drone service providers in the world.
3. Growing optimism
DII’s survey generates an optimism score, where respondents state how they feel about the future of the drone industry. In years past, the industry has not been optimistic, with a rating of just 5.9 out of 10 in 2022. But a lot can happen in a year’s time. This year, the UK’s drone industry optimism score is up to 6.6. It’s got room to grow, but at least it’s growing.
4. Potentially new regulations that would make it easier for drone users to fly safely and meet regulatory requirements
The UK Civil Aviation Authority has put out what’s called a “consultation on proposals” to make it easier for drone users to fly safely and meet regulatory requirements in an open request, with the request window closing on Jan. 10, 2024. Among those proposals include simplifying regulations by reducing complexity in operational requirements in the ‘Open’ category.
Though, it might increase the barrier to entry for hobby drone pilots — if certain aspects of the proposals go through. For example, one proposal would require pilots flying drones under 250g to take an online Flyer ID test. While free, it’d still present some sort of entry barrier. But for it’s part, the UK Civil Aviation Authority has suggested that their regulations will help the drone industry.
“These proposals will help make the UK’s drone regulations fit for today and for the future. We want them to be clear and accessible for users while making sure they deliver the levels of safety and security required,” said Kevin Woolsey, co-head of Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems at the UK Civil Aviation Authority, in a prepared statement. “We’ve listened to the drone community and believe what we are proposing will make it easier for drone users to understand the requirements and fly safely.”
As far as next steps, the UK Civil Aviation Authority has said it expects to publish a response to that consultation in 2024 upon which it’ll submit recommendations to the Department for Transport.
To learn more about drones in the United Kingdom (and to get other drone industry analytics), check out Drone Industry Insights here.