UK government approves 165-mile drone superhighway project

UK drone super-highway

The UK government announced Monday that it had given its awaited approval for the creation of a drone “superhighway” spanning the Midlands to the country’s southeast – a 165-mile UAV corridor touted as the longest of its kind.

The Skyway proposal to create a drone superhighway was initially tabled last March by a consortium headed by UK uncrewed traffic management specialist, Altitude Angel. It is joined by telecom company BT, which will provide connectivity through its mobile network, and several other startups whose activities can support the future UAV transport zone. According to reports, the plan will receive $14.2 million in government funding, from a total of $125 earmarked for integrating new aerial technology into the national airspace.

The objective of the drone superhighway effort is to create a dedicated corridor whose automated technology can take over the heavy-lifting of piloting UAVs – and in doing so, remove the risks of individual operators crashing into one another, thus increasing the security, fluidity, and ease so that a far greater number of UK businesses will use the craft. Once assembled in about two years’ time, Skyway will connect the airspaces above Reading, Oxford, Milton Keynes, Cambridge, Coventry, and Rugby, and usher in beyond visual line of sight operation as the rule.

Read: Brexit schmexit: UK’s CAA to use Europe’s eVTOL certification standards 

How will it work? Rather than myriad individual drones using onboard sensors to detect and avoid other crafts – an every-vehicle-for-itself safety system whose fallibility can be witnessed on roadways – Skyway will use a series of high-powered, ground-based sensors that will interface to centrally direct all overhead traffic. That will not only radically reduce the risk of collisions on the superhighway, but it will also allow UK drone operators to forgo equipping craft with navigational sensors and permit them to maximize the payload, range, and efficiency of their UAVs.

“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 did in the 18th century – the last ‘transport revolution,’” said Richard Parker, Altitude Angel CEO. The “technology we are building here is transformative – it is the basis of Skyway and the only scalable, viable mechanism to start 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. Skyway gives us not just the opportunity to ‘level up’ access to green transportation across Britain, but we can benefit first and export it globally.”

BT’s Director of Drones, Dave Pankhurst, said the creation of the UK’s drone superhighway will allow businesses, public services, and other users in the towns and cities along the corridor to begin using and benefiting from automated UAV services in ways currently unimaginable.

“The social and economic potential of drones is immense and requires close industry collaboration to fully unlock these opportunities in a safe and responsible way,” Pankhurst said. “Skyway will be crucial to showcase how the UK can not only lead the creation of new jobs and public services but form the backbone of how we integrate drones into our daily lives. Cellular connectivity, and a secure, resilient 4G and 5G mobile network, will continue to enable the rapid growth of the drone market… [through] 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.” 

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