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Ground Control to Major Tom: UK’s space-age future

Cultura/Zero Creatives | Riser | Getty Images

Britons will soon be able to travel to a spaceport in a driverless car where they could download pictures of their trips on ultra-fast 5G networks, according to recent government plans.

The initiatives are all part of a recent push by the government to take the U.K. into the space age, making the country a global center for next-generation technology.

Read MoreMind-blowing ways to get into space

The U.K government gave the green light Wednesday for driverless cars to take to the roads next year. Cities around the country can now bid to host driverless cars trials, which are expected to start in January 2015 and last between 18 and 36 months. A review has also been launched to look at current road regulations and ensure there is an appropriate regime for testing driverless cars.

"Driverless cars have huge potential to transform the U.K.'s transport network—they could improve safety, reduce congestion and lower emissions, particularly CO2," said U.K. Transport Minister Claire Perry in a government news release.

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Companies like Google and Tesla are leading the way in designing driverless cars. Morgan Stanley forecasts completely driverless cars—which drive themselves independently under all circumstances—will be available before the end of the decade, but more bearish analysts such as Lux Research say 2030 at the earliest.

Google's driverless car.
Getty Images
Google's driverless car.

Driverless cars should boost road safety, given that some 90 percent of collisions are estimated to be caused at least in part by human error, according to a study by Stanford Law Schools Center for Internet and Society. Use of driverless cars should also "largely eliminate" congestion, according to research from Morgan Stanley, due to smoother driving styles and actively managed intersections and traffic patterns. However, issues of liability, infrastructure and consumer acceptance remain.

The autonomous car industry will reach $87 billion globally by 2030, according to Lux Research. Three U.S. states—California, Nevada and Florida—currently allow driverless vehicles. Sweden is proposing a large trial and Japan carried out a small-scale test last year on their public road.

Ready for lift-off

Also this month the U.K government revealed the eight locations under consideration to base Britain's first spaceport, which it hopes will be built by 2018.

"In order to lead the way on commercial spaceflight, we will need to establish a spaceport that enables us to operate regular flights," said Aviation Minister Robert Goodwill in a government news release.

Read MoreCommercial space race: US lags Europe

Coastal airports across England, Scotland and Wales are being considered as locations for the spaceport. Criteria include an existing runway which is, or is capable of being extended to, over 3000 meters (9,800 feet) in length. The location must also be able to provide segregated airspace for spaceflights and be reasonably distant from densely populated areas.

Artist's impression of prospective U.K. spaceport. The U.K. hopes to launch commercial space flights from 2018.
U.K. government
Artist's impression of prospective U.K. spaceport. The U.K. hopes to launch commercial space flights from 2018.

Airports that could be used for a spaceport are dotted around the country including Scotland, Wales and Cornwall.

Space is already big business for the U.K—it contributes around £11.3 billion ($19.1 billion) to the economy each year and employs nearly 35,000 people. The government hopes the U.K. industry will reach £40 billion by 2030.

Next generation networks

Also Wednesday, London Mayor Boris Johnson detailed plans to help London to become "potentially the first capital city in the world to deploy 5G by 2020".

"5G is likely to become the next mobile global standard, allowing everyone to communicate everything they want to," said Johnson in his "London infrastructure plan 2050" report.

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Fifth generation mobile networks are the next major phase of mobile telecoms standards. No official specification yet exists for 5G, but it is proponents say it will give the impression of instant unlimited access to the Internet. It is being worked on by companies like Samsung and Huawei and it is hoped to be as much as 250 times faster than 4G, allowing users to download full-length films to their smartphones in one second.

Chris Ratcliffe | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Doubts exist however as to whether a 2020 rollout is achievable for London.

"2020 is an extremely ambitious goal, and meeting it will require governments and regulators to play their part by undertaking a rapid, comprehensive and radical review of the laws and licensing regimes that may lag behind technological development," said Vincenzo Lanni and Malcolm Dowden of London law firm Charles Russell in a statement on Wednesday.

—By CNBC's Katy Barnato