Drone City
Proving the safety and efficiency of drones controlled remotely could revolutionise a wide range of industries

Starting gun fired for UK delivery drones

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Karl Tomusk

The UK Civil Aviation Authority has authorised the first trial of routine drone flights outside a pilot’s line of sight, which could have significant implications for logistics, construction and retail.

Beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) command and control developer sees.ai has received authorisation to fly drones at three sites without requiring pre-authorisation for each flight.

The trial will act as a proof of concept, demonstrating the operational effectiveness, efficiency and safety of piloting drones without a nearby pilot. In general, drone operators need to keep their aircraft within their line of sight unless they have specific permission to do otherwise.

Initially, sees.ai, whose senior team includes former Arup, Apple, CERN and McLaren employees, will test drone flights in industrial environments for inspection, monitoring and maintenance purposes.

If it proves to be successful, and if the data gathered about risks and hazards can be used to cover generic risks outside those controlled environments, the trial will potentially open up BVLOS technology to the wider market.

That could enable drone deliveries, more efficient use in construction and infrastructure projects – including for monitoring and maintenance ­– and high quality data capture to design, build and operate the built environment.

Authorisation for the trial came as a result of the UK CAA’s Innovation Sandbox, set up in May 2019 to drive innovation and development in aviation. The Sandbox is now working with 12 businesses, including Amazon and Boeing.

John McKenna, CEO at sees.ai, said: “We are accelerating towards a future where drones fly autonomously at scale – high up alongside manned aviation and low down inside our industrial sites, suburbs and cities. Securing this UK-first permission is a major step on this journey, which will deliver big benefits to society across public health and safety, efficiency and environmental impact.”

Other uses

Last May, drone management software provider SOARIZON and drone deliveries provider Skyport trialled medical drone deliveries in the Scottish Highlands to cut a six hour journey to 15 minutes.

The drone transported COVID-19 test kits and PPE from the Oban & Islands General Hospital to a community hospital on the Isle of Mull in a quarter of an hour, bypassing the need for a journey that usually involves road transport and a ferry, and which is usually done only two or three times a week.

At the time, the teams said that while most of the hype for drone deliveries has been around online shopping, it expected the real acceleration to be initially in the medical delivery space.

Duncan Walker, CEO of Skyports, said: “This technology can have huge benefits, not only in the west coast of Scotland, but many places around Europe and the world, in those under-served places where transportation is hard. Where there’s friction moving goods because of geography or topography, speed of delivery can have really life-saving consequences.”

Like sees.ai, SOARIZON and Skyport are working with the CAA to further develop drone technology. Trials like these, taking place in controlled environments, will be the first step towards the widespread adoption of drones. The next step will require adapting to the real world and proving that the technology works in places with a lot of people, potential disruptions and greater concerns over safety.

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