'Pie in the sky', no longer!

6 mins read

The market for drones has been growing rapidly as new use cases emerge, but with their deployment comes the issue of a suitable supporting infrastructure.

Over the next five years the market for drones is expected to see rapid growth driven by continued technological advancements that will help to extend the range and the size of the payloads that drones will be able to handle.

Drones, or UAVs, are now being used by a host of different sectors delivering internet provision to remote places, for example, aerial photography services, surveillance and a broad range of public services.

There has been a significant increase in drones being used in agricultural and data collection applications, while home deliveries via drones have been developed by the likes of Amazon and UPS – admittedly with mixed results.

While the outlook for the sector is positive there remain issues, both regulatory and technical, that need to be overcome. Technological constraints such as poor endurance and SWaP challenges remain an issue, while government and airspace regulations are hindering growth in several countries.

While the UK has taken a very strict and conservative approach to drone technology it has announced plans for the world's largest automated drone superhighway to be rolled out within the next two years.

The 164-mile Skyway project that will see drones used to connect towns and cities, including Cambridge, Coventry and Rugby, and forms part of a £273m funding package for the aerospace sector that the UK government announced at this year’s Farnborough International Air Show.

According to Dave Pankhurst, director of drones at BT, Skyway involves scaling up trials that have been taking place around the UK and should be seen as helping the industry to take a significant step towards opening up new opportunities.

The Skyway project will see ground-based sensors providing a real-time view of where drones are and they, in turn, will be controlled by a traffic management system.

One of the companies heavily involved in the project is drone specialist Skyfarer. Based in the West Midlands and set up in 2017 the company aims to demonstrate both the economic but also environmental benefits of using drones.

According to Georgia Hanrahan, the company’s Business & Marketing Manager, “As a company we focus on beneficial use cases, especially here in the UK. Many countries around the world are already using drones but here in the UK a combination of policy and regulation has been holding back their use. Prospective users tend to want to see the technology developed further before thinking about integrating it into their own procedures and processes.”

Working with both the police and the NHS, for example, Skyfarer has been using drones to deliver medical supplies and to monitor incidents.

“Our drones are autonomous although manual inspection is available for take-off and landing and we use avoidance technology from Altitude Angel to identify and avoid objects in flight.

“Getting people to embrace drone technology is critical and we’ve been working with the NHS surveying staff and patients as to their attitudes towards drone technology,” explains Hanrahan, “and surprisingly we found those surveyed to be very open to the benefits of using them.”

In terms of infrastructure Skyfarer is looking to roll out 15 hubs across the UK from which it will be possible to operate up to 10 drones.

“The aim is to serve a radius of about 40 km providing a mix of public sector and commercial services,” adds Hanrahan.

The last mile

Last mile deliveries have proved challenging and while Amazon recently announced that it would be making Prime deliveries using drones towards the end of 2022 it began testing drones way back in 2013, but amid much media hype it struggled to address a number of hardware and safety issues.

Its drone fleet is still pending final approval from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) but, if successful, Amazon says that it hopes to extend the service elsewhere 'in the months and years to come'.

The struggles of Amazon and of companies like UPS have highlighted the problems that the drone industry has had to contend with, and residents will be asked to provide feed-back about their Prime Air experience.

While Amazon is rolling out a new commercial drone delivery service UK company Inteliport believes that drones just aren’t practical when it comes to delivering products directly to consumers.

According to Dr Dennis Majoe, CEO of Motion Robotics and founder of Inteliports, ”While there’s been a lot or press about companies delivering products to a property, we don’t believe that is going to happen.

“Drones are able to cover distances quickly and will take a lot of the ‘distance’ out of transport, but when you get to the capillary end - the suburbs - we don’t think drones will be practical, especially in built-up locations like London,” says Majoe.

In response, the Inteliports concept is essentially a droneport or drone airport which is primarily focused on the economic and efficient transportation of goods and supplies.

“Inteliports can be located in a variety of different places whether that’s a retail park, or leisure centre and would be ‘crewed’ by a small number of people. Goods would be handled by small robots, and the drones could get serviced and recharged, with some human oversight. The idea is to cut the time involved in moving goods from point A to B, but the last mile will see bikers or autonomous ground vehicles making the delivery. This form of infrastructure, we believe, is the most viable economically when it comes to deploying drones.”

Crucially, Inteliports can be scaled up and the plan is to create a network in the UK linking businesses and public services and delivering services.

“We not excluding door to door deliveries, but I think cities in the UK are just too built up to enable drones to provide that type of service,” suggests Majoe.

“Using this concept, you’ll see product being shifted from ‘black sites’ and being collected at Inteliports that will act as distribution hubs.”

The concept is in development and demonstrations are due to take place in the coming nine months down at the Solent, on the UK’s south coast.

“The Solent is a hindrance to transport and by using drones it’s possible to cut delivery times from hours to just minutes. We’re planning to set up a number of Inteliports in the area to deliver drugs and blood supplies to local hospitals. Our aim is to deliver an economically viable service with a zero-carbon footprint.”

Inteliports are scalable and could be located anywhere in the world where the infrastructure is either lacking or inadequate.

“Inteliports measures just 5m by 5m and the drones land on them. Within the facility is the technology to process packages and track the movement of the drones and they can be located anywhere – in front of a hospitals or on waterfronts, for example.

“It should be viewed as another mode of transport providing a more organised infrastructure for drones and it forms part of a wider industry collaboration that blends flight control, traffic management, sensor networks, and drone operators.

“It’s a little airport for drones and air cargo management, but it could also be used as a fabrication site, an ecommerce trading hub, and as a facility to maintain drones that uses 3D printing facilities to supply specific components.”


A European project, AMU-LED, is carrying out similar work to that being conducted by Skyway and is focused on co-ordination and testing to manage airspace traffic and to check safety, drone interoperability and feasibility.

The first trial demonstration took place at Cranfield University, in the UK, at the end of June with other trial events planned in the Netherlands and Spain.

U-space is an air traffic management framework that has been developed to enable the safe and secure integration of drones into the wider environment and is a set of specific services and procedures that have been designed to ensure safe and efficient access to airspace for a large number of drones. 

U-space ensures that drone operations are carried out safely and efficiently and is more automated than current air traffic control systems, with less human interaction but the capacity to handle more flights simultaneously. 

The AMU-LED project is a Very Large-scale Demonstration (VLD) project funded by the SESAR Joint Undertaking under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research programme, with the ultimate goal of realising increasingly sustainable smart cities.

The project will use large electrical Vertical Take-off and Landing (eVTOL) platforms for passenger and cargo transport, combined with smaller Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) performing the delivery of goods and medical supplies, and the surveillance or support for emergency services.

The project will use a variety of locations to test various aspects, such as assessing the most efficient way to exchange information between drones, their pilots and the air traffic management system and will test different concepts for Unmanned Traffic Management architectures.

It will also access how data such as strategic and tactical information prior and during the flight, tracking data (real time information about the position of the drone), advisory tactical deconfliction service (information to avoid any conflicts prior to the flight and during the flight), and the provision of weather and Communication, Navigation and Surveillance (CNS) data is processed and shared.

Commenting on the project Gokhan Inalhan, Professor of Autonomous Systems and Artificial Intelligence, who is leading Cranfield University’s involvement in the project, said, “The flight demonstrations will put into practice scenarios, concepts and systems developed throughout the project to test how drones and manned aircraft can operate safely in the same airspace.

“At Cranfield, we’ve been running virtual flights alongside the drones physically flying at the airport, to test their interactions and air traffic management systems and our results will help inform and move forward the whole concept of Urban Air Mobility.”

That is a concept that sees future city-dwellers living alongside a variety of drones in the airspace above where they live and making use of different types of drones to help them travel faster and more efficiently. 

The growing use of drones will require a more effective infrastructure and the concept of the ‘droneport’ is one that is seen as helping to address shortfalls in the current infrastructure that will be required not only in developed economies but emerging ones too.

Drones can deliver a wide range of cargo and medical supplies quickly and cheaply and more people are now sitting up and taking note of how they can be used to meet existing and very obvious shortcomings in society. But whether we’ll see hundreds of drones operating above our heads in a few years – well we’ll have to wait and see.