Vodafone UK has joined a consortium to help carry out the required testing that will ultimately enable drones and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to fly safely in the same airspace as manned aircraft.
Vodafone will provide 4G and 5G connectivity to the National Beyond Visual Line of Sight Experimentation Corridor (NBEC) consortium, which includes Cranfield University, Blue Bear Research and Thales.
The consortium aims to create an ‘experimentation corridor’- a controlled strip of airspace between Blue Bear’s facility in Oakley, Bedford and Cranfield University. The first test flights took place at Cranfield Airport in February 2019.
The NBEC flight corridor will be used to demonstrate how 4G and 5G mobile technology can be used to identify and track the location of a drone in real time. This is vital to ensure that autonomous ‘beyond visual line of sight’ flights are safe.
It will complement existing satellite-based GPS location systems, which provide accurate location estimates but can be open to jamming and compromise. Mobile connectivity on a drone would provide a secondary feed of location-based information, enabling a more robust and trusted picture of the drone’s location.
Such capabilities will be key to the air traffic management systems required to allow the routine and safe flying of commercial drones in the future.
The use of drones with mobile connectivity could open up new opportunities across the private and public sector while boosting economic growth. By 2030, PwC estimates that rising drone use will contribute £42bn to UK GDP, deliver £16bn in annual cost savings (as they replace old delivery methods) and create more than 600,000 jobs.
Many UK businesses are already considering drones for a broad range of tasks including deliveries, the monitoring of critical assets and assisting in rescue missions in hazardous and hard to reach locations.
Anne Sheehan, director, Vodafone Business UK, said: “Drones offer exciting opportunities for the future that will benefit society and the economy. However, we need to make sure they are used safely and responsibly. We are delighted to bring our mobile connectivity expertise to the NBEC consortium so that drone technology can be further tested and developed.”
Professor Iain Gray, director of aerospace at Cranfield University, said: “The addition of global connectivity leader, Vodafone, will be a significant boost to our capabilities as we develop NBEC. Upon completion, NBEC will be a national asset that will help unlock the potential of a modernised UK airspace.”
Ian Williams-Wynn, MD of Blue Bear, said: “The creation of NBEC allows new technologies to be integrated and tested together to accelerate leading edge research and create a blueprint for UK drone activities. Expanding the consortium with key industry leading technology providers, such as Vodafone, will increase NBEC’s capability, and accelerate the expansion of NBEC to become the place to test drones in the UK”.
Vodafone successfully completed the first UK drone delivery over a 4G mobile network in December 2018. It has previously trialled mobile connected drone technology as part of the European Aviation Safety Agency’s U-Space programme in Aldenhoven, Germany and in Sevilla, Spain.