I was interested to read a report by global management consultancy and accountancy firm PwC that there will be 76,000 drones flying in the UK's skies by 2030. The report also estimates that by 2030 the drone economy could increase UK GDP by 42bn, save the UK economy 16bn, and create 628,000 jobs. Only time will tell, whether these drones - also called uncrewed or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) - will soon be delivering Amazon packages, the weekly shop, or your fish and chips on a Friday night.
What we can say with a high degree of confidence, however, is that there are plenty of applicable use-cases right now for blue-light operations, linear and perimeter surveillance, or delivering light goods - whether via pre-programmed flight operations or through piloted remote control.
It's congested up there
Realistically, there are system-level challenges to overcome before we can unleash the economic potential of the drone economy in the UK. Not least in how to mix, manage, and track commercial drones safely in what is already some of Europe's most congested airspace.
Introducing drones into the mix represents a major challenge, though it's one that Thales, our partners like NATS, and regulators like the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) are taking on with a real sense of energy.
NBEC to the future
To be really useful in future, drones need to be able to fly much greater distances and altitudes that go beyond our visual line of sight (BVLOS). So to help develop the technology to enable controlled, safe, and secure long-distance drone flights, Thales, the Government, academia, and other drone industry players created the National BVLOS Experimentation Corridor (NBEC), which is part of the Digital Aviation Research Technology Experimentation Centre (DARTeC) located at Cranfield University, in Bedfordshire.
This volume of airspace, 16km long and half a kilometre wide, is essentially a giant outdoor laboratory. Perfect for testing the infrastructure, sensors, drones, and airspace management systems we'll need to fly drones commercially - and ensure they can operate safely and securely, and co-exist in airspace used by other crewed and uncrewed aircraft.
As an Aeronautics and Astronautics graduate, I'm passionate about how science and technology can fuel innovation in aviation. I was especially excited when, just before Christmas 2021, Thales and its partners carried out the first test flight along the corridor, using air and ground sensors to track and manage a drone's return journey. We also tested the drone's electronic conspicuity, so operators always know where the drone is and can trust it will act safely if it loses its comms link - does it hover where it is, go to ground, or return home?
Showing the way forward
This successful trial represented a small but important step. But scaling to 70,000+ drones flying across the UK's skies will mean developing cutting-edge technologies, high-capacity communications, advanced unmanned traffic management (UTM) systems, and state-of-the-art infrastructure. And NBEC will help show the way forward.
Much has to be done before drones become mainstream, and we need to recognise the UK's still in the early stages, but recent trials have been extremely encouraging and show safe BVLOS operations are here.
To realise the true potential of drones will mean deploying them in the real world safely. But that will also mean convincing the general public of their benefits to our everyday lives and wider society. That, I believe, will take time.
What we can be sure of though is that 2022 is likely to be the year that the quest to realise the drone economy really picks up speed.
This article was orginally authored by Paul Gosling, CTO of Thales UK, and Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering.