UK enters race to permit wider use of drones for business activities

By on 23/04/2021 | Updated on 23/04/2021
Pilotless pilots: the UK’s new drone trials reflect tests being held by many other countries to explore their use by businesses. Picture by via StockSnap

The UK’s aviation regulator has granted permission to a tech company to trial routine long-distance drone services, bringing another country into the global race to make drone use an everyday part of economic activity.

The move was announced by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) on Tuesday. It will allow — which operates drones at industrial sites for inspection, monitoring and maintenance — to run so-called “Beyond Visual Line Of Sight” (BVLOS) services at three sites without pre-authorising each flight.

Described by the CAA as a “significant step forward for the drone industry”, the trial could also open the door to other long-range drone services, such as commercial deliveries of the type being trialled in countries including the US, Japan and Malaysia

New frontiers

BVLOS drone flights are conducted beyond the pilot’s visual range, and therefore have a wider range of potential applications than “VLOS” flights, which maintain visual contact., for example, says that its services can be operated from a central control room, rather than deploying multiple pilots across different industrial sites, “resulting in significantly improved quality, capability and efficiency”.

The CAA has seen potential benefits in safely expanding these flights for some time, saying in 2019 that applications could include parcel delivery, infrastructure inspection, surveillance of accidents, and street mapping in cities. But as it has previously noted: “An unmanned aircraft operating BVLOS no longer has the protection (See & Avoid) of the remote pilot or observer to avoid terrain, obstacles or other aircraft.” As such, all BVLOS flights in the UK have required pre-authorisation.

According to Monday’s announcement, the trail has been informed by guidance from the CAA’s Innovation Sandbox, set up in 2019 to explore how “innovation in aviation can be explored in line with CAA core principles of safety, security and consumer protection”.

Other organizations working with the Sandbox include Amazon, which is exploring the possibility of trialling drone delivery services in the UK, and the innovation agency Nesta, which “aims to maximise the economic and social benefits of drone technology to UK cities”.

The trial also forms part of the Future Flight Challenge, an initiative run by government body UK Research and Innovation. This project will see two drone operators putting’s model through a series of “increasingly challenging trials”. Initially, the flights will need to take place in sight of an observer, who can communicate with the remote pilot.

International momentum

The UK is far from unique in racing to explore the potential of BVLOS drone services.

In the US, the Federal Aviation Authority’s Partnership for Safety Plan manages partnerships with private companies to safely deliver innovative, complex drone services. The authority has granted companies including Amazon and UPS permission to trial drone delivery services.

In 2020, Canada granted its first two licenses for BVLOS drone flights to a partnership of companies running commercial flights over power lines, according to the Commercial Drone Professional website. Its aviation authority Transport Canada is exploring a range of drone technologies, including the development of a joined up “ecosystem” of air traffic management services for drones.

Japan has pledged to introduce a full licensing system for BVLOS drone flights by 2022. According to the Japan Times, the licenses will be restricted by age and subject to operators passing visual and written tests.

And Malaysia is among other countries trialling similar tech. Teleport, the logistics arm of the AirAsia airline, is testing an urban drone delivery service with the first commercial delivery expected at the end of this year, according to Nikkei.

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