Drones have been flying over the UK’s first ‘drone-friendly’ harbour in Falmouth this week as part of ship-to-shore flight trials carried out by Open Skies Cornwall.

The flights are part of a series of trials testing Falmouth Harbour’s ground infrastructure, flying capabilities and airspace for future maritime-focused drone activities, such as emergency medical, food bunkering or maintenance supplies deliveries.

Following the successful conclusion of these trials, Open Skies Cornwall’s aspirations are to fly sorties for real-world use cases to large civilian vessels at strategic moorings in the harbour and to intercept vessels up to 50miles offshore in the Atlantic Ocean/Celtic Sea, providing additional resilience connectivity to maritime workforces at sea.

The trials identified four landing locations in Falmouth Harbour, and tested  key infrastructure in the harbour itself, new sensors that monitor aircraft movements and back-end software updates. New landing locations and flying routes along the Cornish coast towards Truro were also visited thanks to facilitation work along the upper reaches of the Fal Estuary by Port of Truro and Cornwall Council.

Gareth Whatmore, CEO of DronePrep and project lead for Open Skies Cornwall, said: “We’re delighted to have completed a successful round of ship-to-shore integration trials, which included a series of landings on our project’s floating drone delivery testbed rig in strategic, large vessel moorings to collect data and evidence ahead of rolling out our large vessel Atlantic capability later this year. Ship-to-shore flights offer huge potential to add value for Falmouth Harbour’s community but it’s important we work closely with all stakeholders to ensure those innovations operate safely and integrate smoothly with existing infrastructure.

“Our consortia members have a wealth of experience safely delivering ship-to-shore drone flights around the world, but these trials are essential for designing and testing infrastructure and procedures specific to Falmouth Harbour.

“For example, providing maritime drone services on a regular basis means identifying suitable take off and landing locations that will work for the harbour during the busiest times of the year and including this information in the Drone Delivery Register. By identifying the best solutions for this environment, we can also prepare for long-distance, Atlantic capability within airspace that is integrated for both drones and conventional aircraft. This is currently being worked up via the Sky-Highways conops in partnership with the Civil Aviation Authority.”

Miles Carden, CEO at Falmouth Harbour, said: “The Open Skies Cornwall project was always a challenge to us as a Harbour Authority but the funding from Innovate UK is now realising some really exciting flight activity in Falmouth Harbour that we hope will lead to dedicated airspace and commercial operations in the future.

“The efficiency, safety and environmental benefits of using drones for commercial maritime activity are very exciting and could potentially drive significant additional economic value to Falmouth. We hope to accelerate the planned tests and use today's operations as a springboard for new activity right through 2024." 

As part of the trials, Open Skies Cornwall consortia member Neuron Innovations tested sensors and software applications.

Niall Greenwood, Chief Operating Officer at Neuron, said: “As part of our safety procedures, the drones fly over a ground-based sensor to monitor airspace for the presence of other aircraft. During the trials, we were able to test Jet Vision sensors - a new, lower-cost, higher-quality tool - to capture Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) transmissions that monitor aircraft movements.

“We were also able to trial upgrades to our back-end software, which allowed the drone operator, Skyports Drone Services, to connect directly and simply with available sensors, provide coverage mapping and deliver reductions in message latency and costs.

“Our goal is to develop a highly-scalable, self-financing and regulatory-compliant model that can be applied to a variety of use cases and we’re pleased that these trials have successfully demonstrated the clear benefits of our solution.”

Rhys Gittoes, Open Skies Cornwall project lead at Skyports Drone Services, added: “We’ve been operating commercial ship-to-shore drone deliveries in Singapore since 2022, providing a safer, faster, more sustainable link between the shore and vessels in the port.

“Our flights in Falmouth Harbour are part of our broader efforts to demonstrate, trial and test use cases for drone services across the UK. The first step, delivering to a pontoon in Falmouth’s estuary, is an important milestone that we will build on throughout 2024, with both our Open Skies Cornwall project and other ongoing UK flight programmes.”

Open Skies Cornwall is part-funded by the UK Research and Innovation Future Flight Challenge, delivered by Innovate UK and the Economic and Social Research Council.

Simon Masters, Deputy Director of the Future Flight Challenge, said: “Drones offer a range of operational and environmental benefits and their application to the UK’s maritime sector, across a wide range of use-cases is very welcome. This project is taking a lead on showcasing what can be achieved and highlighting the benefits of collaborative R&D. We welcome this important milestone and the opportunities it will encourage moving forwards.”      

Open Skies Cornwall’s maritime drone integration and flight trial programme has been planned in partnership with consortia partners DronePrep, Falmouth Harbour, Neuron Innovations and Skyports Drone Services. Both Skyports Drone Services and Falmouth Harbour agreed a suitable safety case and issued a Mariners Notice to help mariners integrate and deconflict with the trial activity.