Science

Drone highway to be built in England by 2024

This is a new type of highway that has just been sanctioned by the British government. With a length of 265 km, by 2024 it will connect the cities of Reading, Oxford, Milton Keynes, Cambridge, Coventry and Rugby in the south-east of England. The project was officially announced on July 18, 2022 by Business Minister Kwasi Kwarteng at the Farnborough Air Show. And for good reason: this is an air corridor where drones can fly safely, the Skyway project, at an altitude of 120 m (400 ft).

The rollout will be driven by a consortium led by start-up Altitude Angel, a specialist in drone traffic management technologies, including with British Telecom for part of 4G and 5G connectivity.

General airspace

A nuance of size: this is not a space dedicated to drones, but an area shared by all types of aircraft, with or without pilots on board. In this case, Altitude Angel will deploy the solution it has already deployed south of Reading in 2020 in a 500m wide, 8km long corridor called the Arrow Drone Zone, where low-altitude drones share space with conventional aircraft.

The challenge is to safely launch autonomous drones into the air, not machines controlled remotely by an operator. To do this, the approach is to line up a “highway” with sensors on the ground to provide real-time information about obstacles the drones might encounter and literally control traffic in real time. The machines will be in constant contact with the created cloud infrastructure, in particular for displaying data and managing flight permits, as well as being remotely controlled.

Operator retains control of their device

Another feature of the project is that it can work with any manufacturer or service operator of drones, while the latter will not need to technically adapt their machines. Aircraft will be able to use the highway as intended once they are cleared and recognized by the system. “Commercial drones will have a form of electronic visibility once integrated into our system,” explains Steven Farmer, a spokesman for Altitude Angel, “but the operator, not Altitude Angel, will retain control of the device. If our system detects a potential conflict, this operator will be notified.”

The launch is also not responsible for the conditions under which the aircraft takes off and lands, only for what happens in the airspace. The creation of any areas for drones at airports or special hubs or sites in the city center is a separate subject, depending on the use. But that goes beyond the technical aspect of this project.

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