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Future Flight: How BT is taking to the skies

Excitement around drones has taken off as the media spotlight turned to Farnborough Air Show and the projects which have received the backing of the Government, thanks to major new funding via research agency UKRI and an ambitious vision for the UK’s future drone economy.

The project to capture headlines was undoubtedly Skyway – the world’s longest automated drone ‘superhighway’ that will connect the Midlands to the South East of England and cover a total of 165 miles.

Altitude Angel is leading the project, and BT is one of the key partners, along with several UK tech start-ups. We’re excited about Skyway’s potential because it will enable us to explore the many use cases for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV’s) in a safe and responsible way and help us to develop the products and services that could have a transformative effect for the country.

A world where medical supplies are routinely delivered to NHS hospitals via drone, or roads and railways that can be inspected remotely without having to place people’s lives at risk, are just an example of what could be commonplace in the future thanks to this project.

Our EE mobile network, the largest and most reliable in the UK, will be the backbone for Skyway and I’m proud that we can bring expertise and knowledge from across the business to contribute to the partnership.

BT research has found that over two thirds (68%) of the British public believe drones will have a positive impact on their life in the future. But we can’t be complacent about public acceptance of drones. We want to prove that not only can we live safely alongside drones, but we also want to demonstrate the positive impact they can have on our economy – creating jobs and making businesses more efficient to relieve the pressure on escalating costs of living.

While Skyway is the biggest project we’re involved in, it’s by no means the only one. It’s also important to reference the other partnerships that have received the Government’s backing, and where BT has a key role.

Atypical Airspace BVLOS (Beyond Visual Line of Sight) Solution (AABS) is a project led by sees.ai and uses its advanced drone system to allow safe and efficient drone flight in even the most complex and space constrained areas. They will be deploying the technology for critical national infrastructure in the first instance to demonstrate its safety to regulators and the Government.

BT’s team will support by providing mobile connectivity through our EE 4G and 5G network, enabling a data feed to go from the local environment through to the sees.ai control room. During the project we will also explore how satellite backhaul could be used to provide further resiliency for sees.ai.

The AABS project will help us understand more around the requirements organisations have for providing high bandwidth, low latency data feeds over our 4G and 5G network. This will play a critical role in the drones use case and its ability to operate safely. In the case of sees.ai’s solution, the data feed enables remote operators based in a control room to supervise drones on sites nationwide as they execute safe and efficient autonomous flight and data capture. In time this approach will enable a single remote operator to supervise multiple drones – and indeed in this project we are aiming to simultaneously fly two drones with one remote operator supervising.

Another exciting project where BT is adding expertise is InDepth where our Applied Research team based at Adastral Park in Suffolk – BT’s global R&D centre – will be working with the Association of British Ports (ABP), Kier and a number of start-ups to expand on some previous research and trials.

InDepth will involve the use of drones to carry out automatic BVLOS missions to monitor and control critical national infrastructure such as highways and ports.

For example, our Applied Research team will use technology to create a high-fidelity 3D digital twin of a port and use this to combine backend operational data with real-time data from drones to give a rich picture of current port operations. AI will be used to analyse the drone imagery in several use cases, including infrastructure inspection and management of assets, including vehicles.

These are exciting times for BT and the drone industry more widely. The government has recognised the potential of UAVs and its public backing and financial support for these projects will help us advance this technology.

However, for drones to have the kind of impact we know they can, we need the support of stakeholders across Government, devolved administrations and local government, and industry to safely modernise the UK’s legacy regulation and planning policies. After all, the EU, India, Switzerland, and U.S. are all moving at pace to ensure drones in their countries can take to the skies quickly. If the UK accelerates its efforts, there is still time to be a leader in the effective regulation of drones in a way that attracts more innovation, talent, and capital to our shores.

We are at the dawn of a new era. One that could help us revolutionise everything from how we receive deliveries to the advancement of smart cities, improved security, enhanced search and rescue capabilities and safer remote inspection of critical infrastructure. Drones can be the catalyst for all this and more, and BT is excited to be part of this future.

CT Bureau

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