A Nationwide UK Network Could Be Built From Drone Flight Trials In Cornwall

A Nationwide UK Network Could Be Built From Drone Flight Trials In Cornwall
Courtesy by UK Research and Innovation

Cornwall, in the southwest corner of England, has become a hub for efforts to demonstrate how drones could overcome infrastructure limitations and generate economic opportunities through services such as ship-to-shore supply flights. Over the next 15 months, the Open Skies Cornwall project will conduct flight trials using a Skyports drone to support real-life use cases with the National Health Service (NHS), Royal Mail, Falmouth Harbour, and the UK military’s emergency relief group JHubMed. The trials will be backed by £2.4 million ($2.9 million) in funding from UK Research and Innovation as part of the Future Flight Challenge.

The work is being coordinated by DronePrep, a company developing its Drone Delivery Register as an online platform for a network of what it calls Skyhighways by connecting drone operators with landowners. The Skyhighways, which will follow defined routes, could be used for such purposes as transporting medical samples and delivering packages to remote communities and supplies to cruise ships.

The Open Skies Cornwall project should help to develop a blueprint for an expansion of drone services across the UK, according to DronePrep CEO Gareth Whatmore. “We’re taking baby steps with the support of [organizations including] the Royal Mail and the NHS to demonstrate a good use case,” he explained to FutureFlight. “Once we have these places connected, then we can go to the regulator and open up the skies in a bigger capacity.”

The largely rural county of Cornwall with its long peninsular coastline appears to be a useful testing ground for drone services and infrastructure. In addition to the newly allocated Falmouth Harbour Drone Testbed Environment, it offers the former military test range on the Lizard peninsular with airspace now specifically set aside for civilian operations.

With regulations amended for both of these adjoining sites, there is scope for drones to safely operate at altitudes below 120 meters (394 feet). The low altitudes used by uncrewed air vehicles [UAVs] mean that their operations have to be considered in the context of environmental and privacy laws, which is why the Open Skies Cornwall partnership is eager to consult with all stakeholders.

The project is due to run until April 2024 and could be extended for a further six months. Initial consultation with stakeholders will be conducted through the end of February, and this process could result in more specific use cases being proposed. Then from March onwards, the project will embark on a succession of two-month flight trials for Royal Mail, the NHS, Falmouth Harbour, and JHubMed.

The flight trials will use several UAVs from the Skyports Drone Services fleet, offering various payloads and ranges, according to DronePrep chief innovation officer Karina Nasretdinova. The UK-based Skyports group is also involved in developing ground infrastructure for eVTOL aircraft operations.

During a demonstration day at the National Maritime Museum in Falmouth, a Kookaburra Swoop drone was deployed. With a three-kilogram (6.6-pound) payload and a range of up to 130 kilometers (81 miles), the vehicle is well suited to delivering medical samples and supplies, Nasretdinova said.

The Open Skies Cornwall exercise is a continuation of earlier flight trials that included operations to and from the Isles of Scilly, almost 30 miles off the southwest coast of the mainland. The consortium also includes the Isles of Scilly Integrated Care Board, Cornwall’s county council, Neuron Innovations, and the University of Southampton.

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