A future airspace filled with electric drones and sky taxis could become a crucial part of the UK economy, boosting the nation’s wealth by billions of pounds and employing thousands of people. However, for this to become a reality, public acceptance must be overwhelming and supported by examples of societal and economic benefit in the short and long-term.
It will also be necessary to develop and institutionalise a regulatory, safety, and airspace management framework. This would allow uncrewed and highly automated aircraft to operate safely in a coordinated, mixed airspace, alongside traditional aircraft and near to people, buildings and infrastructure.
Since January 2021, experts from across UK industry and academia have been collaborating in the Future Flight Challenge project called Airspace of the Future (AOF). AOF is a multi-skilled, cross-sector consortium, created to explore the practicalities and draft a blueprint for making this future vision possible.
Much of the work, modelling, simulation and trials were carried out by the Centre of Autonomous and Cyber-Physical Systems and centred on the Digital Aviation Research and Technology Centre (DARTeC) at Cranfield University and Cranfield Airport, in Bedfordshire. DARTeC was also the venue for an event in June this year, where Thales and its consortium members showcased their progress to an in-person and online audience. There were also some live flying activities at Blue Bears’ flight facility at Twinwoods near Bedford. The consortium members’ aim was to promote a safely regulated and coordinated airspace within the wider UK transport ecosystem.
Consultations with the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) and engagement with local communities provided a roadmap that evaluated and promoted the societal and economic benefits of drone operations, while helping to address real concerns about safety, airspace management, security and privacy.
Steve Murray, VP for Strategy & Marketing, Thales in the UK, said: “Our work has brought together technologies in air traffic management, aviation systems, modelling and simulation, architecting, and autonomy to help create new modes for air travel. “Although this particular project has ended, our work isn’t over. Thales will continue to collaborate with our partners and work towards developing the rules, framework, processes and infrastructure that allow piloted and uncrewed aircraft to share a safe, unified airspace in the future.”
The AOF consortium includes Thales, Cranfield University, Cranfield Airport Operations, Inmarsat, Altitude Angel, Ocado Group, Blue Bear Systems Research, Satellite Applications Catapult, and Connected Places Catapult.
Future Flight Challenge
The Future Flight Challenge (FFC) is a £300m programme that will be delivered in three phases. The programme aims to assure the UK’s position in the third aviation revolution and is being delivered by UKRI. The UK Government is investing up to £125 million to develop greener ways to fly, such as all-electric aircraft and deliveries by drone, by advancing electric and autonomous flight technologies. The investment is matched by £175 million from industry.
FFC aims to bring together technologies in electrification, aviation systems and autonomy to create new modes of air travel and create the future aviation system.
A new, greener economy
According to a report by PWC “Skies without limits v2.0”, by 2030 drones could increase the UK economy by £45 billion, deliver £16 billion of savings to the economy and employ more than 650,000 people in the sector.The report predicts up to 900,000 drones operating in UK skies. These electrically powered aerial vehicles could actually reduce the impact of economic activity on the environment, while reducing noise and road congestion.However, without a robust airspace management infrastructure, drones would not be able to operate safely beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) of the operator.
The AOF project also explored the strengths of different business cases and the benefits of using drones in many new areas. These included large-scale logistics, parcel-delivery, blue-light emergency services, agricultural and ecological surveys, as well as overseeing critical national infrastructure and supporting national and public security roles.
DARTeC provides an ideal collaborative workspace for pre-commercial cross-pollination of ideas, including the integration of multiple digital systems, and running simulation exercises and real-world demonstrations at the National BVLOS Experimentation Corridor (NBEC), which extends from the adjacent Cranfield Airport.
Laying the groundwork for the future
Drone capabilities are already developing rapidly as operations become more expansive and increase their range, airspace occupancy, and endurance. A whole new network of ground-based airspace management infrastructure and support services will also be needed for the sector to grow, upscale, and be safely managed.
AOF has set the scene and consortium members will continue their crucial work to create the conditions needed for the UK to become an incubator for the next industrial revolution.