Achieving drone operations beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) in a complex airspace is a challenging concept. Drones need to be enabled with Sense and Avoid capabilities in order to mitigate the risk of drones colliding with other aircraft, vehicles, buildings etc.
But what if BVLOS drone operations could be achieved? How much further could drones travel? and what benefits could they bring?
OSL are leading a consortium of industry experts to answer just these questions through an ambitious 2-year project as part of UKRI Future Flight Challenge.
The potential of autonomous BVLOS drones
When fully enabled, the potential for autonomous BVLOS drones is significant. ‘Skies without limits v2.0’, a 2022 report by PwC, stated that by 2030:
- Commercial drones could contribute £45bn to the UK economy
- Commercial drones may realise £22bn net savings
- There may be 900k (+) commercial drones operating in UK skies
- Commercial drones could reduce carbon emissions by 2.4m tonnes
- 650,000 jobs could be associated with an economy that fully adopts drones
- Commercial drones offer public and private organisations the chance to complete tasks more efficiently (faster, safer, cheaper and with less impact on the environment).
For any of these benefits to be achieved, drones must first break free of the requirement for a remote pilot. Technology must be developed to enable them to fly beyond the visual line of sight.
The key role of the remote pilot is a vital one: to observe the drone, and the airspace in which the drone is being flown, and prevent collision with other aircraft, buildings, terrain, vehicles and people.
This technology could see drones provided with the ability to detect and avoid collisions with other entities – particularly other aircraft, with minimum human interaction.
However, the challenge of developing and integrating this technology is a vast one. It involves sensing large amounts of data, before computing them into flight vectors to prevent collisions. Once this is done, it also involves placing these capabilities in a package of the sufficient size, weight and power (SWaP) requirements to fit on a small drone.
So, what is to be done?
Introducing Project HADO®
The £13 million Project HADO® is one of the biggest in scale and ambition to secure partial funding from HM Government’s Future Flight Challenge. Project HADO® has been funded as part of the third phase of the challenge, in which a total of £73 million of grant funding has been awarded to 17 national projects.
The project has two clear aims: demonstrate BVLOS drone operations using unmanned aerial systems (UAS) weighing up to 25kg at London Heathrow Airport, and inform aviation future regulations for BVLOS UAS through evidenced recommendations.
HADO® will facilitate autonomous BVLOS in complex airspace by utilising a wide range of technology positioned on the ground: including synthetic environments, drone surveillance systems, and sophisticated UAS Traffic Management products.
It’s important to note that flying a single BVLOS drone at Heathrow, whilst a good technical exercise, isn’t enough. It is recognised that this wouldn’t justify the effort needed to remove the remote pilot from the equation, and it wouldn’t comprehensively explore the scale-up potential of HADO®.
This is why the consortium aims to fly multiple drones simultaneously, made possible due to a technological ecosystem that confidently replaces the eyes, ears and brains of human drone pilots. For these drones, some potential tasks include:
- Security patrols around the perimeter
- Infrastructure inspections of roofs, taxiways and waterways
- Small consignment couriering
- Incident response
- Counter-rogue-drone operations
Completing these tasks under the control of a system such as HADO® will significantly enhance the frequency at which data can be collected from flights in the Heathrow estate, as well as greatly decrease incident response times. It will also reduce the costs and requirements for humans to conduct inspections in dangerous places – enhancing security and improving safety across Heathrow as a result.
Using Heathrow as an example
London Heathrow Airport is the perfect candidate for demonstrating safe BVLOS drone operations, due to its complex, congested, urbanised and intense air traffic environment.
Heathrow’s highly controlled and sensed airspace, means that the vast majority of aircraft movements are planned, approved, observed and managed. If drones can be integrated into this dense picture, and deconflicted from other aircraft by a system of sensors on the ground, then the risk of collision can be removed.
UK’s busiest airport is also a great representation of a city with such a large volume of people, infrastructure, vehicles and more. Incorporating the management of security systems that already exist, Heathrow already has an advantage in the development work to create ‘smart cities’, therefore understanding how to weave drones into this interconnected system will provide a variety of really useful insights into how to do so for global cities of the future.
HADO® continues to make progress in designing and catalysing BVLOS drone operations, and we look forward to continuing to share the latest updates, insights, and information with you as soon as it becomes available.
At Operational Solutions, we’re committed to creating safer spaces worldwide by enabling trusted and advanced situational intelligence. To learn more, visit our solutions page and discover how our market-leading technology can empower greater awareness and insights than ever before.