In November 2020, Vodafone and Ericsson successfully tested sky corridors for drones at Vodafone’s 5G Mobility Lab in Aldenhoven, Germany, as the two companies moved a step closer to enabling real-world use cases for 5G drones.
Today, though, BT has gone a step further, announcing the UK’s first commercial drone corridor, working alongside a new consortium of companies and organisations with a view to delivering 5G use cases for drone technology.
“As drone numbers continue to rise, there is an urgent need to safely integrate commercial drones into global airspace alongside manned aviation,” said Gerry McQuade, CEO of BT’s enterprise unit. “In showing how drones can deliver improved, potentially life-saving services to the public, we’re aiming to accelerate the adoption of fully automated drones in unrestricted UK airspace in a safe and responsible way.”
BT and drone partners
BT, alongside partners such as Altitude Angel and a number of UK tech start-ups, announced that it has been selected by UK Research and Innovation to deliver Project XCelerate. Project XCelerate will make up part of the wider Future Flight Challenge project, with the aim of establishing the UK’s first commercial drone corridor in open and unrestricted airspace, located south of Reading, Berkshire.
“Project XCelerate is bringing together experts and world leaders in their respective fields, something we’re very proud and excited to be a part of,” explained Richard Parker, Altitude Angel CEO and founder. “Our Arrow technology is truly ground-breaking and the key enabler to the project and we’re pleased to be deploying it for maximum benefit in the UK first.”
The project will conduct flight trials along an 8km-long corridor during the summer of 2021, and it hopes to demonstrate how drones can operate safely in the same airspace as manned aviation.
“BT’s role in the consortium is to bring world-leading drone expertise together and to provide the secure and resilient mobile network connectivity, as well as our drone detection services,” McQuade said. “The power of EE’s 4G and 5G networks will ensure commercial drones remain connected for greater situational awareness, accurate positioning and to avoid collisions – ensuring that they can be operated safely and responsibly across UK skies.”
Beyond visual line of sight
Other companies included in the Project include Dronecloud, HeroTech8, Skyports, and DroneStream. And together they will aim to develop a system where drones can operate Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS).
“The Project’s ambitions are clear, we are making the technology, safety and commercial cases for delivering real-world BVLOS (Beyond Visual Line of Sight) drone flights, at scale,” said Jan Domaradzki, Dronecloud CEO. “Dronecloud will help integrate the complex components required into a centralised, command and control platform for Enterprise Drone Fleets.”
The key use cases will include the use of drones to assist the emergency services, to carry out 3D mapping, to aid the police force, to undergo safety inspections, and to make deliveries.
“Skyports is already working with the NHS in Scotland to assist with the response to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic by transporting medical supplies and samples between healthcare sites and integrating our drone delivery service into their supply chain, “ explained Duncan Walker, Skyports CEO. “In Project XCelerate, we will be able to contribute our expertise and experience of flying BVLOS missions and benefit from the means to operate in non-segregated airspace – essential to achieving permanent, full-scale commercial drone delivery operations.”
The Project will operate on the EE mobile network – which also delivers the Emergency Services Network (ESN) in the UK - which will enable BT to provide the communications for BVLOS (Beyond Visual Line of Sight) environments, such as GPS location and remote identification, command and control, redundant geo-awareness, and live notifications (NOTAMs) sent directly to drones in-flight.