How’s this for a giant piece of infrastructure that you can’t actually see? There’s a giant drone superhighway coming to the United Kingdom.
The UK government announced this week as part of the Farnborough Air Show that it had given the green light for a series of drone superhighways spanning 165 miles. The route links cities and towns throughout the midlands to the southeast of the country, primarily above Reading, Oxford, Milton Keynes, Cambridge, Coventry, and Rugby.
And with such superhighways will likely come the emergence of beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) flights, proving that drones can safely carry out commercial missions without being in the pilots’ view, while also existing in airspace occupied y other drones.
It’s being called “Project Skyway.” Here’s everything you need to know about the Skyway superhighway:
Who is responsible for creating the UK drone superhighway?
The UK drone superhighway project is a joint effort largely helmed by Altitude Angel, a Reading-based UTM (Unified Traffic Management) solution provider.
The connectivity is being provided by British telecom operator BT through its mobile network, EE. BT already has experience in drone corridors. Last summer, BT began trial operations on an 5-mile long corridor near Reading, which is west of London.
Then there’s Skyports Drone Services, a provider and operator of eVTOL drone aircraft for delivery, survey and monitoring operations that primarily focues on BVLOS use cases including ship-to-shore and maritime applications, medical and dangerous goods deliveries, and AI-driven surveys for the agriculture and infrastructure sectors.
A few other smaller drone startups, as well as the Department for Business and Energy & Strategy (BEIS) InnovateUK program are involved.
Through the tests, the companies involved intend to show how drones in the U.K. can create new jobs and public services, while also providing a case for drones being an integrated component of daily life.
Among the key aspects of the corridor include providing drone pilots with greater situational awareness and tactical collision avoidance instructions from the autopilot system. It’ll also demonstrate the ability to stream key video feeds such as search and rescue footage back to control rooms.
The Skyway project is an important step in the commercial scale-up of BVLOS UAS operations which will enable high-density UAS operations between key hubs along dedicated corridors,” Jef Geudens, Head of Technology at Skyports Drone Services said.
When will the drone highway be built?
Even though there isn’t any physical concrete to be poured, such a drone highway requires work to put together, particularly in the forms of creating connectivity through a mobile network. Unlike traditional highways made of concrete, drone corridors are comprised of a network of sensors and radar.
Altitude Angel said it would likely take about two years to fully build and develop the project. From there, Altitude Angel said in the future it could expand the corridor to any other locations in the country.
What other drone superhighways are out there?
The UK drone superhighway is not actually the first drone superhighway out there. At the end of 2019, we saw the opening of a 50-mile drone corridor covering mostly rural areas between Central New York to New York’s Mohawk Valley. That project kicked off back in November of 2016, when then-New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced a $30 million state investment to develop a drone traffic management system between Syracuse and the FAA’s NYS UAS Test Site at Griffiss International Airport.
But the 165-mile distance of the UK superhighway makes this one the largest and longest network of drones out there.
And also, unlike many existing drone corridors or research facilities that can be fairly restrictive in terms of access (which in some ways is natural given their beta nature), this superhighway is set to democratize BVLOS drone operations. In an announcement earlier this year previewing the highway, Altitude Angel said that any drone company — as long as it completes a series of basic technical integrations (which don’t actually even require specialist hardware on-board the drone, to boot) — would be supported.
“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,” said Richard Parker, CEO and founder of Altitude Angel. “(It’s the last ‘transport revolution.”