The United Kingdom Creates the Future Flight Challenge (FFC) to Help Advance Drone Technology

With a background in science and technology, Nadhim Zahawi has been serving the British government since 2010. On July 26, 2019, Zahawi became the Minister of the Department of Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy (BEIS). With the support of 41 agencies, the BEIS is responsible for leading the United Kingdom through a path to a greener future embracing technology and innovation. Some of these paths include innovations in the fields of advanced manufacturing, professional business services, automotive, and aerospace. On November 9, 2020, Minister Zahawi announced that the UK government would be granting substantial funds for several aerospace ventures to develop drone based strategies.

The UK has challenged itself to revolutionize the possibilities of aviation through the use of drones by the year 2024 with a project called the Future Flight Challenge (FFC). The government has pledged £125 million to be used towards aviation advancement in this challenge. Minister Zahawi announced that £33.5 million of this investment would be allocated to fund a wide range of drone programs through the BEIS. In the announcement, he shared that £7 million has been initially awarded to 20 ideas to be implemented, with another 28 to be added in the future.

The ideas that have won this first round of funding from the government revolve around drones that will be used to address coronavirus issues and emergency and humanitarian missions. One of the companies that will be receiving part of the funding is Apian based out of Essex. Apian was founded by National Health Service (NHS) doctors in training Hammad Jeilani and Christopher Law.  As a part of an NHS entrepreneurial enrichment challenge, Apian was developed to support NHS doctors, nurses, and technicians to better service patients with the use of drones.

Using a hospital’s existing helicopter pad, Apian will use drones to transport medical supplies, COVID-19 samples and tests, PPEs, tissue samples, and medications. The drones can transport such materials rapidly at a fraction of the cost, all while reducing carbon footprints. In a time when hospitals are being overloaded with the influx of COVID-19 patients, using drones to transport necessary medical supplies will free up NHS workers to do what they need to do. They can focus on treating patients, not worrying about when supplies will be available. The drones also reduce the risk of the spread of the virus as they minimize the need for people to come in contact with each other.

Another one of the companies that will be benefiting from this first round of funding is London based Windracers, developers of drones for emergency and humanitarian missions. The drones they have built can carry a payload of 220lbs over a 600mile range. With the new round of funding, Windracers will be perfecting their software that will allow their drones to work in swarms to put out fires or deliver emergency aid to underdeveloped nations. This includes supplying such regions with food, water, and medical supplies during times of crisis. Some of the nations Windracers aims to assist are in dire need of medical supplies because of the stress placed upon them from COVID-19. While Apian’s drones are ideal for delivering COVID-19 related items on a local scale, Windracers can do so more globally.

The initial goal of the FFC was to encourage the growth of drones and aviation in the UK, a country widely considered one of the leading forces behind aerospace technologies. The initiative is set to create hundreds of new jobs and assist thousands of people daily. When Gary Cutts, director of FFC, was questioned as to whether he thought that reaching the FFC’s goals by 2024 was reasonable, he said “I think our goal is absolutely to set time scales and challenges that might not be possible. If people don’t think we are slightly mad in what we’re trying to achieve, we’re probably not being quite brave enough.” As the world entered a time of uncertainty because of a global pandemic, the BEIS was quick to recognize that drones are perfectly positioned tools to meet the unique challenges of the world today.  Bravery in challenging the limits of drone capabilities is just what the world needs right now, a challenge Minister Zahawi and the BEIS with the help of the FFC is ready to tackle.

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