The United Kingdom is set to become home to the world’s largest automated drone superhighway within the next two years. The drones will be used on the 164-mile Skyway project connecting towns and cities as part of a $334 million funding package for the aerospace sector, says a report by the BBC.
In the U.K. and other countries, drones are already used for many commercial tasks, such as inspecting infrastructure, surveying crops, filming videos, transporting medical supplies and, in some places, delivering packages and pizzas. The problem: Those flights are strictly limited by U.K. aviation regulators aiming to prevent accidents, especially collisions with manned aircraft. To circumvent the limitations, the British government has decided drones can be given freedom of the sky by creating what The Economist called the world’s biggest “superhighway.”
U.K. business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng said the superhighway will “help the sector seize on the enormous opportunities for growth that exist as the world transitions to cleaner forms of flight.”
Project Skyway, as the project is called, is backed by a consortium of companies including Altitude Angel, which specializes in automated air-traffic management and has been testing the idea with a five-mile drone corridor in the Thames Valley. Another partner is British Telecom, which plans to use its telecoms network to link the superhighway to drone operators, who often use apps on mobile devices to fly their machines. British Telecom will also fit the ground sensors to some of its mobile-phone towers, reports The Economist.
The magazine adds that drone operators would need to be registered to use the superhighway. It would be set at low altitude, below Britain’s busy flight corridors where airliners zoom. But it would be designed to detect general aviation, so light aircraft and helicopters could pass through the superhighway safely. If a potential conflict is detected, the drone would be instructed to change its flight path or even land. Operators would be notified and would be able to take manual control of their drone if required. By some estimates, nearly 900,000 commercial drones could be buzzing around Britain by 2030.
Currently, commercial drones in the U.K. are not supposed to be flown beyond an operator’s visual line of sight, which raises the cost of long flights because ground pilots and observers are required along the route.
As is the case in other countries, the British Civil Aviation Authority takes the line that if companies want to operate flights beyond an operator’s visual line of sight, their drones must be able to detect and avoid both planes and each other, just as crewed aircraft do. According to The Economist, specialist gear is being developed to equip drones to do this, but it will add cost and weight to what are often small machines. The idea of a designated superhighway is that instead of putting such kit in the drones, it can be installed on the ground; this equipment would monitor and communicate with the machines and automate flights so they are safe.
A total of $128.9 million of the government’s funding will be targeted specifically for projects relating to integrated aviation systems and new vehicle technologies, including unmanned aerial vehicles such as drones. These projects include a plan to use drones to provide regular deliveries of mail and medicine across Scotland and the Isles of Scilly, writes the BBC.
Mike Consol (firstname.lastname@example.org) is editor of Real Assets Adviser. Follow him on Twitter (@mikeconsol) and LinkedIn (linkedIn.com/in/mikeconsol) to read his latest postings.