The United Kingdom is poised to in the next two years; host the largest automated drone superhighway in the world.
The ‘unpiloted aircraft’ will be used on the 164-mile Skyway project, which will connect towns and cities, including Cambridge and Rugby, with the drone purchase part of a £273m funding package for the aerospace sector that is expected to be revealed on Monday by Business Secretary, Kwasi Kwarteng.
The funding package included other projects like the use of drones to deliver mail to the Isles of Scilly and medication across Scotland.
Kwarteng, who is expected to announce the news at the Farnborough International Airshow, will analyse how the funding will “help the sector seize on the enormous opportunities for growth that exist as the world transitions to cleaner forms of flight”.
But the launch of the automated drone will not be without its challenges, as according to Steve Wright, the associate professor in aerospace engineering at UWE Bristol, asserting that the biggest concern regarding crashes do not actually come when the drone is in the air, but during take-off or landing.
“It’s about the first and last bit of the flight,” he said. “The problem is what happens when you’re 10 feet away from people. That’s the bit I spend my time worrying about.
“When it’s up in the air I know it’s stable and it’s not going to hit something.
“People are looking at lowering packages down from the air – in other words you keep the drone well away from people. There are lots of very bright people out there working on flight plans that deliberately avoid built-up areas.”
Dave Pankhurst, drones director at BT, one of the partners involved in the collaboration, told BBC that Skyway is making immediate plans to scale up trials that have been taking place around the United Kingdom.
“This drone capability has existed for quite some time, but is in its infancy in terms of being actually part of our society and being a usable application,” he said.
“So for us, this is about taking a significant step towards that point. It’s going to open up so many opportunities.”
Skyway which is aiming to connect the airspace above Reading, Oxford, Milton Keynes, Cambridge, Coventry and Rugby by mid-2024, will receive more than £12m in the funding.
£105.5m of the funding will be earmarked for projects relating to “integrated aviation systems and new vehicle technologies”, including unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) such as drones, with the projects including a plan to dispatch drones to provide regular deliveries of mail and medicine to the Isles of Scilly, and to distribute medicines across Scotland, in the process enabling some cancer patients to be treated in their local community.
The chief operating officer of aviation technology company Altitude Angel, Chris Forster, posited that there are many potential uses for the superhighway.
“Whether it be a business doing logistics, all the way to the police and medical deliveries of vaccines and blood samples, there’s a real demand to have access to this airspace.
“We’ve done a few projects in Africa where the road infrastructure was not good for ground vehicles, and the delivery of vaccines was provided by automated drones,” he added.
How does the Technology work?
The technology makes use of ground-based sensors that are installed along the highway to provide a real-time view of where drones are in the airspace.
The data gotten from the sensors are then analysed by a traffic management system, an air traffic control for drones that guides them along their routes, while avoiding collisions.