Congestion on the roads could be reduced as more drones are used for mobility and freight, says AoF

An increased use of drones and other electric aircraft for mobility and freight could help reduce road congestion as well as cut the environmental impact of aviation, according to the Airspace of the Future (AoF) group.

Nine organisations from UK industry and academia have come together to form the AoF consortium. The group, which will work to integrate drone services into the transport system, comprises of Thales, Cranfield University, Cranfield Airport Operations, Inmarsat, Altitude Angel, Ocado Group, Blue Bear, the Satellite Applications Catapult and the Connected Places Catapult. It was formed in response to UK Research and Innovation’s Future Flight Challenge (FFC).

The group will also develop supporting ground infrastructure, regulation and control systems required to use these new aircraft practically and safely. It aims to demonstrate the value of a mixed-use airspace through simulation and real-world applications, said the Institute of Mechanical Engineers.

The FFC supports the development of new technologies in the UK, including freight-carrying drones, urban air vehicles, and hybrid-electric regional aircraft. It is funded by £125m from the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund, which is expected to be matched by up to £175m from industry.

“Through advances in electric and autonomous flight technology, it will increase mobility and reduce road congestion, improve connectivity, scale up UK manufacturing opportunities, and help reduce the environmental impact of aviation across the globe,” the AoF said.

The new consortium will pool extensive expertise and experience to ensure routine, operational drone services can be carried out safely. The group will work to integrate quieter, more efficient, and less polluting aircraft within transport infrastructure, ensuring aircraft can fly to and from a cost-effective network of small operating bases. 

Alex Cresswell, CEO of Thales in the UK, said: “Today, Thales air traffic management systems control two-thirds of the world’s manned airspace, enabling two in three aeroplanes to take off or land safely. The opportunity to take this knowledge and experience into the fledgling unmanned traffic management (UTM) market is extremely exciting and will help revolutionise the sector.

“We are pleased to be leading the AoF consortium, which will continue to drive innovation in the booming UTM market by applying new technologies to develop support ground infrastructure and air control systems.

“By utilising expertise from some of the UK’s most pioneering technology and transport organisations, the consortium will help deliver new, more environmentally-conscious ways of providing air services for tasks such as inspection, surveying, and the delivery of goods by drones.

“We are excited for the consortium to be part of the UK government’s ambition to lead from the front on the world stage to tackle the climate crisis. Ahead of the COP26 conference in November, we look forward to showing how the UK as a ‘science superpower’ is supporting these efforts.”

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