UK to build world's largest automated drone superhighway

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The UK government has greenlighted a project to develop a 165mile-long superhighway network for uncrewed aerial vehicles by mid-2024.

The UK is set to become home to the world's largest automated drone superhighway within the next two years.

The government has recently announced the 164-mile Skyway project that will connect the airspace above cities including Reading, Oxford, Milton Keynes, Cambridge, Coventry, and Rugby by mid-2024, at a cost of over £12m. 

Skyway is part of a £273m funding package for the aerospace sector which will be revealed by Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng at the Farnborough International Airshow on Monday and is expected to "help the sector seize on the enormous opportunities for growth that exist as the world transitions to cleaner forms of flight", according to the politician.

A total of £105.5m of the government's funding will be specifically for projects relating to "integrated aviation systems and new vehicle technologies", including unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) such as drones.

Developing the world-first "drone superhighway" will involve the installation of ground-based sensors which will provide a real-time view of where the drones are located. The data will then be analysed by a traffic management system – a sort of air traffic control for drones – which will guide the drones through "corridors" and help them reach their destinations.

The plans were proposed by a consortium led by software provider Altitude Angel alongside BT, with a view of scaling up trials that the company had overseen around the UK. 

"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," Dave Pankhurst, director of drones at BT told the BBC. "So for us, this is about taking a significant step towards that point. It's going to open up so many opportunities."

In addition to the plans for the superhighway, the government's funding package will also support other projects that are taking advantage of drone technologies to improve the quality of life in the UK. One of these is the plan to use drones to provide regular deliveries of mail and medicine to the Isles of Scilly, and to distribute medicines across Scotland, potentially enabling some cancer patients to be treated in their local community.

"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," said Chris Forster, chief operating officer of Altitude Angel.

"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."

Last month, the UK approved an NHS trial that aimed to deliver chemotherapy medication via drones from a pharmacy at Portsmouth Hospitals University NHS Trust to St Mary’s Hospital on the Isle of Wight. If successful, the drones will be able to provide access to life-saving medication in under 30 minutes. 

Despite the many exciting possibilities of drone technologies, some experts, such as Steve Wright, associate professor in aerospace engineering at UWE Bristol, have warned about the possible risks involved in the process of take-off or landing of the devices. At the moment, drones currently cannot be flown without a human pilot except in specific circumstances.

Pankhurst said the Skyway team project was working alongside the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) to ensure that all safety guidelines are correctly followed, and highlighted that Altitude Angel's detect and avoid (DAA) technology to prevent collisions was developed back in 2020 and tested in a five-mile flight corridor just south of Reading.

In addition to saving lives through the delivery of medical supplies, drone technologies can also contribute to the UK's goal of reaching net zero. Figures from the Department for Business Energy and Industrial Strategy in 2020 showed that transport remained the largest source of carbon emissions in the UK at 28 per cent, with energy supply on 23 per cent.

"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," said Richard Parker, CEO of Altitude Angel. 

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