How BT’s network and technology consortium will unleash the potential of commercial drone zones

By Dave Pankhurst, Head of Drone Solutions at BT

The last 15 months have thrown into sharp relief just how important connectivity has become in modern life. It is difficult to imagine how we would have managed lockdowns even ten years ago, before 4G mobile networks and widespread superfast broadband, let alone 5G, and without services and software, from Deliveroo and online supermarket sites to mass video conferencing platforms like Teams or Zoom. Our personal and professional lives are increasingly reliant on such technologies and services. We’ve also seen how technology has the potential to transform healthcare, from drone technology trialling the delivery of Covid-19 supplies and blood samples to remote communities, to technology enabling loved ones to stay in touch in intensive care units.

The continuous evolution of mobile and fixed line connectivity is a key driving force behind some of the most exciting technological developments happening today. In the UK, one of our strongest assets is our communications technology industry. At BT we're consistently a top ten R&D spender among both UK companies and telcos worldwide, and we are committed to providing the next generation of connectivity to unlock new services, products and possibilities across a range of industries in the coming years.

As a leading connectivity and technology partner for UK businesses and the public sector, we are trusted to deliver fast, reliable cellular connectivity for people, devices and machines in the UK. That means we’re well placed to lead an exciting new chapter for the UK, bringing together the best of the mobile communication and aviation industries in the development of commercial drone flights.

Six months ago, together with Altitude Angel and a number of UK tech startups, we launched Project XCelerate; a key Future Flight Challenge project backed by the UK Government’s Industrial Strategy. The BT led consortium of expert drone partners is enabling the safe and secure use of commercial drones in the UK through the development of ‘drone zones’ - areas where drones will be able to fly in unrestricted airspace in a controlled manner.

Through Project XCelerate, our aim is to prove to industry and the public that, with the correct technology and infrastructure in place, safety standards can be met for secure and responsible commercial drone usage in unrestricted airspace, when flown beyond visual line of sight. This will enable drones to offer commercial operations a range of new tools to provide new services to the public. It will also form the basis of new industries that save lives, create jobs and boost the British economy.

In practice, drone zones will help assist medical deliveries, support the emergency services and the NHS with time critical missions, empower Search and Rescue operations and enable national infrastructure to be checked quickly and safely to reduce outages and delays.

Cellular connectivity is a crucial enabler for the success of the emerging drone market and requires a secure and resilient 4G and 5G mobile network. Through our EE mobile business, we are bringing the UK’s biggest, fastest and most reliable network to Project XCelerate. We are laying the groundwork and investing in the future of cellular-connected drone services, to ensure that drones remain connected for greater situational awareness, accurate positioning and collision avoidance. Within Project XCelerate, BT’s critical communications channel is able to assess the flight path to ensure the drone can maintain adequate and continuous cellular coverage, sending live data alerts to Altitude Angel’s Unmanned Traffic Management (UTM) system to inform route planning. This is key to achieving Beyond-Visual-Line-of-Sight (BVLOS) capabilities, and is outlined in the GSMA’s new case study.

The GSMA is actively involved in the future of Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) and has launched Aerial Connectivity Joint Activity (ACJA) in partnership with the Global Unmanned Traffic Management Association. This will ensure the promotion of information sharing and collaboration between the aviation and cellular communities to help unleash the full potential of drones across Europe. I believe the social and economic potential of a drone-accelerated economic recovery is immense and requires close industry collaboration.

The next step on this journey will see Project XCelerate conducting flight trials along an 8km-long drone route this summer. While the trials will be initially in segregated airspace, it will enable us to see the various connectivity technologies come together and showcase how the drone zone concept works. Later in the project we’ll trial an exciting first of BVLOS flights in unrestricted UK airspace. This proof of concept will demonstrate a BVLOS flight zone in which any compatible vehicle can connect into and fly within safely.

The trials will allow us to showcase the value drones can provide across various verticals, including healthcare, critical infrastructure and the emergency services, and demonstrate the benefits drones offer. And while we’re starting today with 4G connectivity, once we have proof-of-concept, we’ll be able to explore the possibilities that 5G will enable, around scale and drone-level autonomy for use cases we don’t even know about yet.

It’s an exciting time to be involved in such a powerful consortium and the potential the industry holds is immense. It requires everyone to work together at pace, from the Government, regulators, and the industry. Through collaboration of world leading expertise, we will ensure the UK remains at the forefront of the market and a leader in the future of cellular connected drone services.

If you’d like to find out more about Project XCelerate and the partners involved in the BT-led consortium, visit our website here. More information about the connectivity being provided for the UK’s first commercial drone zone, can be found in the GSMA Internet of Things Case Study.

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 2021, BT Group’s reported revenue was £21,331m with reported profit before taxation of £1,804m.

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