With PwC predicting 76,000 drones flying in UK airspace by 2030, the December test flights in the National BVLOS Experimentation Corridor (NBEC) were aimed at developing infrastructure and systems to track and manage ‘myriad’ users flying in unsegregated airspace between 400 and 10,000 feet.
The drone flew the length of the corridor, from Cranfield University’s research airport in Bedfordshire to the village of Oakley and back again, in a 'pre-planned' flight with human oversight. According to an announcement by Thales, one of the NBEC partners alongside Blue Bear, Cranfield and Vodafone, air and ground sensors – including a holographic radar by Aveillant – tracked and managed the drone’s return journey. The beyond-visual-line-of-sight (BVLOS) flights also included a simulated airspace encounter, to test avoidance manoeuvres.
“The success of the NBEC’s first phase iterative trials shows that safe and consistent BVLOS operations are possible,” the Thales announcement said.
The NBEC, which is also part of the Civil Aviation Authority’s (CAA) Innovation Hub Sandbox initiative, incorporates surveillance and tracking capabilities to provide a ‘fused situational awareness’ picture to allow BVLOS operations.
Flying a drone on a pre-determined flightpath through CAA-authorised airspace is an important step ahead of the predicted increase in air traffic. Practical uses of BVLOS drone flights could include wind turbine blade inspection, traffic monitoring, search-and-rescue, power line surveys and medical deliveries.
“Consider the UK’s already congested skies, and the scale and complexity of the challenge ahead – to ensure the safe co-existence of manned and unmanned air vehicles operating in new airspace structures – becomes clear,” the Thales announcement said.
“To happen safely, this integration requires processing huge amounts of data generated by ground and air sensors. And that requires cutting-edge infrastructure, secure and high-capacity communications enablers, as well as advanced unmanned traffic management (UTM) systems to dynamically manage and control the airspace.
“This is why consortia like the NBEC partnership are so important. They bring together the wide range of experience and expertise needed to seamlessly research, test and knit together these technologies and systems, because no one or two organisations can do it all.”
The French multinational plans to introduce new airspace management technology and increase its contributions to UTM operations in 2022.
Want the best engineering stories delivered straight to your inbox? The Professional Engineering newsletter gives you vital updates on the most cutting-edge engineering and exciting new job opportunities. To sign up, click here.
Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.