The UK will take a significant step towards driverless delivery drones dropping off parcels around the country with the first trials of the technology taking place early in the new year. The trials, approved by The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) in accordance with a new guide it published earlier in December, will test the flight of drones out of the site of their operator. It will be the first time drones have been allowed to fly outside of their operator’s line of site, which until now has been banned.
The aim of the new CAA guide, and accompanying trials, is for long distance drone flights to become an “everyday occurrence”, says The Times, which reported the news. Among the first commercial application of long distance drone flights will almost certainly be the delivery of packages by e-commerce giants such as Amazon. However, the first tests will carry out construction site inspections.
The drone flights will be ‘semi-autonomous’, with an operator in a control room directing the flight. Flights will be at a distance of up to 50 miles from the control room and extensive commercial use of the technology could be a reality by as early as 2021.
Under current rules, drone operators are only permitted to fly the devices within their visual range. That usually means only as far as 1600ft. from where they are located and where there are no building or other objects obstructing their line of site to the drone they are controlling.
Those rules, which can only be disregarded with special permission and under limited circumstances have held back the use of drone technology in ‘non-segregated airspace’, where aircraft may also be present. That has meant that while the technology has been up to the task for some time, drones have not been able to be used for parcel delivery or deployment to accident scenes, providing early information.
However, lobby groups have been applying increasing pressure for new regulations that will allow for more extensive use of drone technology, with the commercial market estimated to grow to a value of around £42 billion by 2030 in the UK alone.
The first trials will be conducted by West Sussex-based Sees.ai and are planned for February. The test flights will conduct inspections at a Skanska construction site in Surrey and will involve DJI S900 drone models. The first flights will be controlled by an on-site operator before the move to a control room located at a distance of 50 miles. The drones will be equipped with lasers, cameras, navigation sensors and mapping technology and the trial flights will be monitored by the CAA.
Two further trials are planned for later in the year and will carry out inspection work on an infrastructure project of engineers Atkins. See.ai chief executive John McKenna commented:
“We most likely will be the first business in the UK to fly beyond visual line of sight in non-segregated airspace. It might even be the first in the western world where there are regulations that are comparable to the UK.”
Semi-autonomous drone flights over industrial zones is a first step towards flights over public spaces where the risk is heightened. The CAA has said that beyond-line-of-site drone flights “could bring huge benefits, including drone parcel delivery”.
Amazon would be expected to be the first company in the UK to begin to exploit pilotless drone delivery services.