Drones are destined for the commercial marketplace, says Michael Minall, and the UK is well placed to reap significant economic benefits
Once reserved for use in the military, unmanned autonomous vehicles (UAVs), or drones, seem destined for the commercial marketplace. Ear-marked as a centre for drone technology research and development, the UK could reap significant economic benefits from such innovation. However, for UAVs to be produced and sold successfully, firms must establish a supply chain and workforce with the correct capabilities.
The practical potential of drones is well documented ranging from Amazon pledging to use UAVs to deliver goods, to other applications including film, 3D mapping and surveillance.
Developing a supply chain for drone production is such a significant challenge as the current aerospace sector is already competing for capable capacity in the supply chain. The task of making enough commercial aircraft to meet rising passenger numbers (20,000 over the next 20 years) means that many manufacturers are working at stretched capacity. To combat this, innovators of drone technology must move now to engage in supply chain mapping and open a dialogue with key suppliers regarding future business needs, communicating their requirements in terms of volumes, key capabilities and location.
Such forward planning not only ensures production capability it also allows cost savings. Companies can evaluate the viability of moving elements of manufacturing abroad to regions where they can benefit from regional investment initiatives or reduced labour costs, such as South East Asia. This said, there will be a desire to keep the highest skilled jobs within the UK, which reveals a second problem – the skills gap.
Engineering is an increasingly unpopular degree subject, with the brightest talent often lured into other disciplines. In order to source staff with the desired technical skills and capabilities, firms must take action at a grassroots level, partnering with universities to sponsor degree programmes. This way they can gain access to the highest-achieving graduates with the appropriate skills. Of course, this takes time, so again it’s a case of acting now to ensure that in five years, once drones have been shaped for commercial use, the UK sector is ready to capitalise.
There is a great deal of work to be done in order to reach this point. The first step firms will likely take is improving the range of drones, as well as enhancing safety features through collision warning systems. Even after these advancements have been made, perhaps the biggest hurdle to overcome is the public’s perception of drone technology. At present, drones are perceived as the medium through which air strikes are made and our privacy is breached through covert surveillance – not synonymous with a machine we would happily have deliver our mail.
Changing these perceptions, pushing forward with technological advancements and ‘supply chain mapping’ are key if the UK is to fully benefit from and capitalise on the mainstreaming of drones. Early successes will likely build our reputation as a research hub and encourage further investment.
Michael Minall is Aerospace and Defence Director at Vendigital, a firm of procurement and supply chain specialists.