London to launch the first dedicated commercial drone corridor?

Covering a vast 6,500 square metres, the African Drone and Data Academy’s Drone Testing Centre in Kasungu, Malawi, might be the largest drone testing corridor in the world today – but it is London that could take the accolade for delivering the first ever dedicated commercial route for delivery drones flying beyond the visual line of sight.

A proposal was forwarded to the British Civil Aviation Authority by London-based unmanned traffic management (UTM) software provider Altitude Angel, which will see project Arrow Drone Zone in operation, as part of the CAA’s Innovation Sandbox, which seeks to support the testing of new aviation technologies and business models.

Project Arrow Drone Zone’s proposed site along the Thames Valley to the west of London will be available to support fully autonomous BVLOS drone flights for all drone companies that satisfy the Civil Aviation Authority on some basic technical integrations.

According to Altitude Angel, infrastructure work on the eight-kilometre long and 500-metre wide corridor situated south of Reading, Berkshire is set to begin in the coming weeks. The work will help the company in managing drone traffic in the drone zone, including the installation of enhanced Detect and Avoid infrastructure, which will communicate with Altitude Angel’s UTM platform to keep manned planes and other air traffic flying outside the so-called Arrow Drone Zone safely away from each other.

“If a conflict is detected, drones involved will be automatically given appropriate avoidance instructions, such as an instruction to change flight path, hold, return or land,” said Altitude Angel in a statement. “A remote pilot will also be alerted, and manual control of the drone can be taken at any time.

“Drones flying within Arrow Drone Zones need no specialist equipment, such as new sensors, to utilise the Zone. Unlike existing drone corridors or research facilities where the airspace is typically restricted or closed to general aviation traffic by redefining the airspace as a Temporary Danger Area (TDA), the Arrow Drone Zone will be in open and unrestricted airspace. This means drones and general aviation will be sharing the same airspace in a real-world environment.”

The latest development is a scoop especially for urban air mobility and drone delivery, which have been experiencing a spike in pilot tests and certifications of late. In urban unmanned mobility, the World Economic Forum recently revealed that it was working with the US city of Los Angeles in California, to develop a working air traffic management platform that would be recommended to other world cities should it succeed. And in Africa, a hackathon is already underway for drone technology entrepreneurs to brainstorm on unmanned air traffic management solutions that will undergo testing by November this year.

In the drone delivery space, it seems technology giants Amazon and Google; worldwide delivery company UPS and lately, Walmart; are upscaling their drone-based last mile delivery operations – with Amazon joining Google and UPS in acquiring the Part 107 Federal Aviation Administration certification allowing it to use drone to deliver parcels. Walmart, in the meantime, has started test projects in delivering health products and groceries.

“Project Arrow and Arrow Drone Zones open the door to the next level in the evolution of UTM and automated drone operations,” said Richard Parker, Altitude Angel, CEO and founder. “The size of this step cannot be underestimated: BVLOS automated flight in unrestricted airspace is a very significant barrier to overcome in order to realise the vision of mass-commercial drone usage.

“Drone technology has the potential to change the world in a myriad of ways, and Altitude Angel will be ready to support organisations and businesses around the globe to enable automated drone flights and manned aviation to operate safely side-by-side through the implementation of Arrow Drone Zones.”

As for the rest of England, Altitude Angel has said its Arrow Drone Zone technology will be available to any organisation, or municipality that wants to follow the London example and establish a drone corridor of its own. The company says it has been perfecting its Arrow concept for many years, including building a comprehensive safety case handed to the CAA as part of the application for permission to operate the first drone zone in the world.

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