Flying High

Enabling UK cities to shape the future of urban drones

Drone tech promises widespread change, but local impacts. Working with Nesta, we helped five UK cities prioritise their needs and design a future with drones that works for their communities.


  • Nesta
  • Innovate UK


  • Cities
  • Flight
  • Transport


  • Problem prioritisation
  • Workshop design and facilitation
  • Technical feasibility research

Inviting people to start a challenging conversation

Regulators, public services, businesses, technologists, and citizens all have different ideas about how drones could be used in the cities of the future. But right now, in the UK drones are limited in terms of where they can fly and how they can be used – especially when it comes to busy, complex urban environments. These restrictions keep people safe, but they also frustrate efforts to realise many potentially beneficial applications of an emerging technology.

Recognising a need to balance these interests, Nesta launched Flying High. Supported by Innovate UK, the project aimed to initiate a national conversation about drones by starting locally, with cities. Working with Nesta Challenges, our role on this collaborative research project was to help people living and working in five selected cities participate in this conversation to shape the future of urban drone technology.

Equipping cities to explore priorities and possibilities

Bradford, London, Preston, Southampton, and the West Midlands each gathered committees of representatives from local government, universities, and industry. With many different backgrounds and perspectives present, we needed to rapidly establish a shared vocabulary that everyone could use to talk with one another.

In response, we created a series of publications to help people explore the potential applications of drone technologies and the types of urban challenges they could address. For each featured drone application, we highlighted potential benefits, impacts, requirements, and suitability considerations. These resources provided a common set of reference points all decision makers could draw on when assessing possible uses for drones within the context of their city regions.

Use cases for drones in your city introductory pack introduced drones and their possible applications.

Drone use case briefs provided more detailed examples of how drones could be used to achieve specific aims.

From disruptive technology to resilient cities

Our next task was to create the right conditions for diverse groups of people to discuss, deliberate, and debate the opportunities and challenges of implementing drone systems in and around their cities. We took a participatory approach to this, designing and facilitating a series of workshops that enabled drone experts, local policymakers, entrepreneurs, and public service providers to propose and explore the roles drones could play in their shared futures. Activities from these workshops are included in the City drone strategy toolkit, a resource that can be used by any city looking to structure further research, formulate insights, pitch recommendations, gather perspectives, and prioritise drone use cases through consensus.

The City drone strategy toolkit is for any city interested in discovering how drone technology could be used to address local needs.

Workshop participants mapped their city's goals to potential drone applications.

'Postcards from the future' provoked discussion and debate, helping to test assumptions and elicit insights about how drones should and shouldn't be used.

A city-led approach to technology adoption

Building on this work, we contributed to a body of evidence supporting a future of drones led by cities. Our research on topics such as security, privacy, and communications helped provide background for assessing the technical feasibility of each city’s selected use case. We also synthesised projections of possible futures for drone infrastructure and urban airspaces by envisioning how these might interact with our existing city systems.

Through Flying High, Nesta set out to establish the social and economic impact of specific urban drone applications, and to open up opportunities for pilot testing and the development of relevant regulation. We helped Nesta to establish a common vocabulary, create spaces for dialogue, share tools for prioritisation and consensus, and compile evidence. In doing so, we helped develop a network of resilient cities ready to seize the opportunities presented by an emerging technology.

Picturing how drones could be part of cities of the future.

Read Flying High's final report.

We're excited by how this city-led, participatory approach opened discussion around the role drones could play in urban settings. What other technologies could benefit from a similar process? If you'd like to explore these together, we'd love to hear from you.

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