Trials at UK’s first drone-friendly harbour

The UK has its first drone-friendly harbour.

Delivery drones have been flying over the Falmouth Harbour in the past week, as part of the ship-to-shore flight trials carried out by £2,4million Open Skies Cornwall – a UK Research and Innovation-Future Flight Challenge programme, sponsored by Innovate UK.

The flights are part of a series of trials to test the harbour’s ground infrastructure, flying capabilities and airspace for future maritime-focused drone activities, which include delivery of emergency medical supplies, food, bunker samples or maintenance equipment.

The Falmouth Docks are deep-water docks in the town of Falmouth in Cornwall, England. The docks are the southern shore of the Fal Estuary which is the third largest natural harbour in the world and the deepest in Europe.

They extend over 30 hectares and cover a range of services to the shipping industry – such as repair, refuelling, cleaning and disposal of waste services.

“We’re pleased to have completed a successful round of ship-to-shore integration trials and have been delighted by the community’s positive engagement,” said Gareth Whatmore, CEO of DronePrep and project lead for Open Skies Cornwall.

“Ship-to-shore flights offer huge potential to add value for Falmouth Harbour’s community but it’s important that we work closely with all stakeholders to ensure those innovations operate safely and integrate smoothly with existing infrastructure.

“Our consortia members have a wealth of experience delivering ship-to-shore drone flights around the world, but these trials are essential for designing and testing infrastructure and procedures specific to this harbour environment.”

The trials identified four landing locations in Falmouth Harbour, and tested infrastructure in the harbour itself. New landing locations and flying routes along the Cornish coast towards Truro were also visited thanks to facilitation work along the upper reaches of the Fal Estuary by Port of Truro and Cornwall Council.

“The Open Skies Cornwall project was always a challenge to us as a Harbour Authority but the funding from Innovate UK is now realising some really exciting flight activity in the Harbour, which we hope will lead to dedicated airspace and commercial operations in the future,” said Miles Carden, CEO at Falmouth Harbour, the custodian organisation of the docks.

“The efficiency, safety and environmental benefits of using drones for commercial maritime activity are very exciting and could potentially drive significant additional economic value to Falmouth. We hope to accelerate the planned tests and use today’s operations as a springboard for new activity right through 2024.”

Open Skies Cornwall hopes this project will go beyond just the pilot and develop into regular commercial flying sorties for real-world use cases to large civilian vessels at strategic moorings in the harbour.

The project also harbours aspirations of intercepting vessels up to 50 miles offshore in the Atlantic Ocean/Celtic Sea, providing additional resilience connectivity for maritime workforces at sea.

The Open Skies Cornwall is a research and development project involving nine companies (Cornwall Council, DronePrep, Falmouth Harbour, JHUBMED, Neuron, NHS Cornwall and Isles of Scilly, Royal Mail, Skyports, University of Southampton).

Led by DronePrep, the consortium aims to unlock four Cornish airspace environments for the next generation of unmanned aircraft while establishing a network of ‘Skyhighways’ to connect remote communities via drones.

It has received £2.4 million in funding from the UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) Future Flight Challenge, which will be funnelled towards building ground and landing infrastructure, establish unmanned traffic management sensor networks, commission new unmanned aircraft, and establish Skyhighways to support medical and commodity delivery by drone around the harbour.

“We’ve been operating commercial ship-to-shore drone deliveries in Singapore since 2022, providing a safer, faster, more sustainable link between the shore and vessels in the port,” said Rhys Gittoes, Open Skies Cornwall project lead at Skyports Drone Services.

“Our flights in Falmouth Harbour are part of our broader efforts to demonstrate, trial and test use cases for drone services across the UK.”

The UK Research and Innovation Future Flight Challenge meanwhile, is a £300 million programme, co-funded by government and industry, that is supporting the creation of the aviation ecosystem needed to accelerate the introduction of advanced air mobility (AAM), drones, and electric sub-regional aircraft in the UK.

Delivered by Innovate UK and the Economic and Social Research Council, the programme works with industry, academia, government, and regulators to transform how we connect people, transport goods, and deliver services in a sustainable way that provides socio-economic benefits using new types of air vehicles with novel technologies.

Simon Masters, Deputy Director of the Future Flight Challenge, said; “Drones offer a range of operational and environmental benefits and their application to the UK’s maritime sector, across a wide range of use-cases is very welcome.

“This project is taking a lead on showcasing what can be achieved and highlighting the benefits of collaborative research and development. We welcome this important milestone and the opportunities it will encourage moving forwards.”


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