BT leads consortium to deliver 'Future Flight' drones project to revolutionise airspace

  • BT led consortium wins Future Flight Challenge Fund project - backed by the Government’s Industrial Strategy - to revolutionise the way people, goods and services use drone technology

  • Project XCelerate will establish the UK’s first commercial drone corridor in open and unrestricted airspace to prove how automated drones and manned aviation can safely co-exist

  • Consortium will demonstrate flight trials across a number of key use cases including medical deliveries and rapid response for the emergency services

BT took a significant leap into the commercial drones market today, as the company announced the formation of a new consortium to deliver a series of industry use cases across the UK’s first commercial drone corridor. BT, together with Altitude Angel and a number of UK tech start-ups, have been selected by UK Research and Innovation to deliver “Project XCelerate” – a key Future Flight Challenge project[1] which will establish the UK’s first commercial drone corridor in open and unrestricted airspace, located south of Reading, Berkshire.

In summer 2021, the project will conduct flight trials along the 8km-long corridor to demonstrate how drones can operate safely in the same airspace as manned aviation. The consortium will demonstrate key industry use cases across healthcare, emergency services and infrastructure to illustrate how drone deliveries and inspection can bring countless benefits to businesses, the public sector and UK citizens.

Gerry McQuade, CEO of BT’s Enterprise unit, said: “As drone numbers continue to rise, there is an urgent need to safely integrate commercial drones into global airspace alongside manned aviation. In showing how drones can deliver improved, potentially life-saving services to the public, we’re aiming to accelerate the adoption of fully automated drones in unrestricted UK airspace in a safe and responsible way.”

“From improved mobility, connectivity, healthcare and manufacturing output, to reduced road congestion and pollution, automated drone technology will transform the quality of our lives. BT’s role in the consortium is to bring world-leading drone expertise together and to provide the secure and resilient mobile network connectivity, as well as our drone detection services. The power of EE’s 4G and 5G networks will ensure commercial drones remain connected for greater situational awareness, accurate positioning and to avoid collisions – ensuring that they can be operated safely and responsibly across UK skies.”

Richard Parker, Altitude Angel, CEO and founder said: “Project XCelerate is bringing together experts and world leaders in their respective fields, something we’re very proud and excited to be a part of. Our Arrow technology is truly ground-breaking and the key enabler to the project and we’re pleased to be deploying it for maximum benefit in the UK first.”

Joining BT and Altitude Angel as part of the consortium are: drone technology experts from Dronecloud, HeroTech8 and Skyports, cyber security provider Angoka, and end user experts SkyBound Rescuer and DroneStream.

The key use cases which will be explored by the consortium include using drones to assist the emergency services, for example during road traffic collisions and search and rescue missions. Using 3D mapping techniques, drones can be used for forensics purposes to aid the police when responding to road traffic collisions and can also help to locate missing persons during search and rescue missions. Project XCelerate will prove how drone technology can be used to speed up response times for such incidents, helping the emergency services to improve the chances of survival, whilst also reducing costs.

The project will also demonstrate how automated drones can reduce the lead times for urgently needed medical deliveries, helping the healthcare and pharmaceutical sectors to improve standards of patient care. A further use case is key infrastructure inspection, where drones can be used to help assess damage or maintenance required for critical national infrastructure for the utilities, telecoms and transport sectors.

BT's strengths in reliable, secure, high bandwidth, low-latency radio and fixed connectivity mean it is ideally placed to lead the consortium. Its EE mobile network – the biggest and fastest in the UK, and the trusted provider behind the critical Emergency Services Network (ESN) - will ensure that a safe commercial drone corridor can be established with optimal mobile coverage at altitude. BT will provide the critical communications required for BVLOS (Beyond Visual Line of Sight) environments such as GPS location and remote identification, command and control, redundant geo-awareness, and live notifications (NOTAMs) sent directly to drones in-flight.

BT will combine its experience with Altitude Angel’s leading experience in Unmanned Traffic Management (UTM) platforms, together with its operation of the Arrow Drone Zone commercial drone corridor. UTM is a key enabler to address the safe and efficient integration of unmanned vehicles into airspace. Project XCelerate will combine a network of existing and new technologies underpinned by Altitude Angel's proven UTM platform, incorporating existing air traffic management and communications systems and augmented by new technology, such as 5G.

Project XCelerate aims to widen the use of UTM systems by providing a framework which towns, cities, organisations and networks can follow in order to ‘open up’ portions of the sky. The project consortium is powerfully placed to realise the world's first live commercial automated BVLOS flight zone in which any compatible vehicle can connect into and fly within safely.


Notes to Editors

Project XCelerate is match funded by UK Research and Innovation through the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund.

About BVLOS (Beyond Visual Line of Sight) drone flights

  • Current Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) regulation outlines that drones have to operate within the pilot’s Visual Line Of Sight (VLOS) unless granted a permission by the CAA.

  • The concept of operating drones BVLOS (Beyond Visual Line of Sight) means that drones are able to fly beyond visual range of the remote pilot by using appropriate technology to safely identify, locate and control drones.

  • The adoption and integration of highly automated drones in unsegregated UK airspace, enabling a number of key drone use cases will rapidly unlock the full potential of BVLOS drone flights.

Consortium Partner Quotes:

Yuri Andersson, Angoka CEO and co-founder, said: “Project XCelerate offers exciting new possibilities into the future of drone flight. Angoka is delighted to contribute with its unique technology, developed to secure machine-to-machine communication, which will be critical to ensure the safety of drone traffic management”.

Jan Domaradzki, Dronecloud, CEO said: “We’re super excited to be working with a truly world leading team on Project XCelerate. The Project’s ambitions are clear, we are making the technology, safety and commercial cases for delivering real-world BVLOS (Beyond Visual Line of Sight) drone flights, at scale. Dronecloud will help integrate the complex components required into a centralised, command and control platform for Enterprise Drone Fleets.

Harry Howe, CEO at DroneStream, said: “Connectivity is at the heart of what ensures the successful adoption of drone capabilities if the service is to scale. With project XCelerate we build on this by enabling drones to live stream information in real-time to control rooms, teams on the ground and other stakeholders while they analyse and act on it, a situation that can be described as true interoperability”.

Edward Anastassacos, HEROTECH8, CEO said: “In Project XCelerate we will be will be using our drone-in-a-box technology to deliver the UK’s first industrial Drone On-Demand platform where end-users can hail drone services as soon as they are needed. Project XCelerate will facilitate this step-change in drone utilisation and we are excited to be a part it.”

Gemma Alcock, SkyBound Rescuer, CEO said: “In Project XCelerate, SkyBound Rescuer will be managing the Emergency Response use cases, which will enable drones to reach emergency incidents ahead of rescue teams to autonomously conduct optimised mission plans based on our research-driven methodologies; enhancing safety, saving cost, saving time, and – most importantly – saving lives.”

Duncan Walker, Skyports CEO said: “Skyports is already working with the NHS in Scotland to assist with the response to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic by transporting medical supplies and samples between healthcare sites and integrating our drone delivery service into their supply chain. In Project XCelerate, we will be able to contribute our expertise and experience of flying BVLOS missions and benefit from the means to operate in non-segregated airspace – essential to achieving permanent, full-scale commercial drone delivery operations.”

Supportive industry comments:

Gareth Pritchard, National Chair of the Association of Lowland Rescue said; “We are delighted to be involved in Project XCelerate. Our 34 Teams across the country provide an invaluable resource to assist the police in finding vulnerable missing persons. This Project will develop the use of drones to support our operations and to safeguard the public.”

Paul Lindup, Drone Manager, Air Operations at Network Rail, said: “The reason why Network Rail’s Air Operations are involved in Future Flight is two-fold. Firstly we have been operating unmanned aircraft in various guises now for six years now, so have some experience in this sector. Secondly there are several exciting SME’s that are pushing the boundaries of what unmanned aviation can offer the UK market. Air Operations is excited to be part of a consortia of these exciting companies to learn what can be achieved. We are particularly interested in the Drone in a Box idea along with BVLOS capability for the inspections of our asset but also responding to incidents along our 20,000 miles of track. We see the future of this model and are excited to see what the challenge achieves”

About Altitude Angel

Altitude Angel is the world’s leading provider of UTM (Unmanned Traffic Management) software, enabling those planning to operate, or develop UTM/U-Space solutions, to quickly integrate robust data and services with minimum effort.

Today, Altitude Angel’s market-defining technology is providing a critical, enabling service on which the future of automated navigation in towns, cities and at key infrastructure locations will be built.

By unlocking the potential of drones and helping national aviation authorities, ANSPs, towns, cities, developers and enterprise organisations to access the sky, Altitude Angel is helping to prepare our world for the aerial revolution.

Alongside BT and Altitude Angel, the consortium holds a broad mix of U.K. corporate, start-up, and researchers, including:

  • Angoka is a cybersecurity startup, headquartered in Belfast, with an office in London. Angoka provides hardware-based solutions for managing the cybersecurity risks inherent in machine-to-machine (M2M) communication networks, such as those used for Connected and Autonomous Vehicles, Critical National Infrastructure and Industry 4.0. Angoka is passionately committed to keeping the internet of everything secure and looks forward to developing new solutions for the emerging field of drone traffic management systems.

  • Skyports operates cargo drone deliveries within the medical, e-commerce and logistics sectors overcoming inefficiencies associated with traditional transportation methods. Skyports is also working with the leading electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) passenger and cargo vehicle manufacturers around the world to secure, design, build, own and operate vertiports enabling safe and efficient flight operations within urban and suburban environments. Based in London, United Kingdom, Skyports has projects operating in multiple continents, including in Europe, North America, Asia and Africa. Skyports investors are Deutsche Bahn Digital Ventures, Groupe ADP, Irelandia Aviation and Levitate Capital. www.skyports.net

  • HEROTECH8 is a robotics startup developing drone-in-a-box technology for security, public safety and industrial inspection applications. Our technology enables end-users with a means of remotely and automatically deploying, recovering and recharging drones without the need for an on-site pilot.

  • SkyBound Rescuer offers industry leading research and consultancy services into best practice for the use of drones in public safety.

  • DroneStream is a software platform that allows drone operators to collaborate with their clients or teams in real-time.

  • Dronecloud is a cloud-based Software as a Service (SaaS) solution targeted at enterprise level drone operations, built for drone operators by drone operators. Our platform and evolving eco-system integrates complex drone fleets, team based project management, real-time air space & ground hazard data into a risk assessed and auditable workflow built for mission critical drone ops. Dronecloud has been helping some of the biggest UK and International drone users with operations currently supported by Civil Aviation regulation, while paving the way for Beyond Visual Line of Sight and increased autonomy & automation. The future of drone operations, Today!

UK Research and Innovation (UKRI):

UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) is the largest public funder of research and innovation in the UK, with a budget of over £8bn. It is composed of seven disciplinary research councils, Innovate UK and Research England.

We operate across the whole country and work with our many partners in higher education, research organisations businesses, government, and charities.

Our vision is for an outstanding research and innovation system in the UK that gives everyone the opportunity to contribute and to benefit, enriching lives locally, nationally and internationally.

Our mission is to convene, catalyse and invest in close collaboration with others to build a thriving, inclusive research and innovation system that connects discovery to prosperity and public good.

UKRI continues to support the research and innovation community to navigate the transitions associated with the exit of the UK from the EU. To keep up to date please visit our dedicated pages. https://www.ukri.org/research/international/ukri-eu-exit/

Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund: The Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund aims to bring together the UK’s world leading research with business to meet the major industrial and societal challenges of our time. The fund was created to provide funding and support to UK businesses and researchers, part of the government’s £4.7 billion increase in research and development over the next 4 years. It was designed to ensure that research and innovation takes centre stage in the Government’s modern Industrial Strategy. It is run by UK Research and Innovation.

[1] https://www.ukri.org/innovation/industrial-strategy-challenge-fund/future-flight1/

About BT

BT Group is the UK’s leading telecommunications and network provider and a leading provider of global communications services and solutions, serving customers in 180 countries. Its principal activities in the UK include the provision of fixed voice, mobile, broadband and TV (including Sport) and a range of products and services over converged fixed and mobile networks to consumer, business and public sector customers. For its global customers, BT provides managed services, security and network and IT infrastructure services to support their operations all over the world. BT consists of four customer-facing units: Consumer, Enterprise, Global and its wholly-owned subsidiary, Openreach, which provides access network services to over 650 communications provider customers who sell phone, broadband and Ethernet services to homes and businesses across the UK.

For the year ended 31 March 2020, BT Group’s reported revenue was £22,905m with reported profit before taxation of £2,353m.

British Telecommunications plc is a wholly-owned subsidiary of BT Group plc and encompasses virtually all businesses and assets of the BT Group. BT Group plc is listed on the London Stock Exchange.

For more information, visit www.bt.com/about