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Make way for the drone superhighway, says UK

Chris Middleton Profile picture for user cmiddleton July 29, 2022
There is exciting news on future flight plans in the UK – but have strategists thought things through?

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News that the UK is building the world’s biggest automated drone superhighway has grabbed my attention this week, at a time when tech scribes’ job is often to sift out the ‘world leading’ rhetoric to find whatever grains of fact may be left.

The ‘superhighway’ is a triangle of airspace connecting Oxford, Cambridge, Reading, Coventry, Milton Keynes, and Rugby – academic and business hotspots in the Midlands above London.

The concept is to create 165 miles/265 kilometre of air corridors supported by a network of advanced ground-based sensors and comms. This means unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) within the system will need less onboard hardware themselves, and so be lighter and use less energy, meaning they can fly further. Eventually the superhighway(s) will connect the Midlands to the South East and, the government hopes, to the rest of the UK.

Project Skyway, as it is known, was announced at the Farnborough Airshow, by a consortium of businesses led by unified traffic management (UTM) provider Altitude Angel. Partners include BT. Altitude Angel CEO and founder Richard Parker said:

The capability we are deploying and proving through Skyway can revolutionize the way we transport goods and travel in a way not experienced since the advent of the railways in the 18th century: the last transport revolution.

It was the 19th Century, and since then we have had motorcars and planes, but Parker continued:

The ARROW technology we are building here is transformative – it is the basis of Skyway and the only scalable, viable mechanism to start the integration of drones into our everyday lives, safely and fairly, ensuring that airspace can remain open, and crewed and uncrewed aviation from any party can safely coexist.

BT Director of Drones Dave Pankhurst added:

Cellular connectivity, and a secure, resilient 4G and 5G mobile network, will continue to enable the rapid growth of the drone market. Through our EE network, BT is providing the UK’s largest and most reliable network to Project Skyway, to keep drones connected to ARROW so they can receive greater situational awareness and tactical collision avoidance instructions from the autopilot system, and stream key video feeds such as search and rescue footage back to control rooms.

This raises big questions, such as what happens when mobile coverage is patchy, or affected by dropouts and big crowds of people? Losing your conversation on the motorway, in the train, at a match, or on a crowded seafront is a common occurrence. So, what happens if you are an autonomous or remotely piloted aircraft?

Another is, using cellular/mobile/LTE networks will force drones to fly at low altitude – certainly below the 3,000ft ceiling of the technology, and probably much nearer the ground to ensure reliable, real-time connections. This will pull UAVs directly into the lives of people below, and create the noise and quality of life intrusion that, bafflingly, remains absent from high-level debate.

So, what is the big picture of the UK’s ambitions? It is claimed that UAVs of every kind could contribute up to £45 billion to the UK economy by 2030, as a core component of the government’s Future of Flight Plan for more efficient, advanced, green aviation.

That’s the best-case estimate in PwC’s recent Skies Without Limits v2 report, which also predicted a possible £22 billion in net cost savings from adopting UAVs, a reduction in carbon emissions of 2.4 million tons, and the creation of 650,000 jobs. Bold claims indeed.

Ambition vs Reality

However, all this can only be achieved in an economy that “fully adopts drones”, including for last-mile urban delivery – a concept that has always been absurd.

UAVs have countless exciting applications: for example, surveying and maintenance, emergency communications, security, search and rescue, disaster recovery, media innovation and entertainment, plus deliveries to remote communities and of essential items across cities. Factor in air taxis, electric planes, and a looming future of autonomous or remotely piloted cargo platforms and future flight looks exciting.

First-mile deliveries make sense too: deliveries to local hubs, where electric trucks, vans, bikes, scooters, robots, and more, could pick up the load. But hundreds of thousands of noisy rotorcraft are not going to be delivering small, non-essential parcels to homes in crowded cities, for one simple reason: it negates all common sense. It would also be a nightmare for residents.

Nevertheless, the above figures and more are highlighted in a new government document, Advancing Airborne Autonomy, which was published this week. Notable among these is the prediction that 900,000 drones could be operating in the UK’s crowded skies by the end of the decade.

That’s a staggering statistic when one considers it is nearly three times the number of traditional flights into and out of the UK every year, according to the most recent, COVID-reduced figures from the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA). But unlike most piloted planes, each of those drones may make several flights a day within the UK, assuming a typical journey is of just a few miles.

The clear implication is that millions of flights – of rotorcraft and fixed-wing electric planes – could take place over our towns, cities, and green spaces; flights that will be a mix of autonomous, automated, and remotely piloted. If piloted, many will fly beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS), hence the need for a superhighway.

All will need to be safe, predictable, and reliable, avoiding collisions with other drones (regardless of what technology they are using) – not to mention with traditional aircraft, transport systems, buildings, aerials, pylons, cables, cars, and human beings, while not straying into protected airspace. Drones will have to integrate safely with all of these things and more, and all that air traffic will need to be managed.

Further questions arise over noise, nuisance, crime (theft from and vandalism of drones), and insurance. Many issues are interconnected. For example, real-time, on-demand drone flight insurance is a growth industry, but one that has an inbuilt problem: an inherent tendency to route flights over quiet residential communities, parks, and areas of natural beauty rather than, say, city centres or railway stations, which carry a higher premium.

My take

The superhighway is an exciting project and an intelligent solution to the risks of a commercial drone free-for-all, though it begs the question of whether regulation and legislation would force innovators to use the UK system, or merely co-exist with it. In other words, a free-for-all may occur regardless.

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