Green machines: can drones help achieve net zero?

From military tools to hobbyists’ playthings to filmmakers’ dreams, the uses for drones are many and varied. But could they be a gift from above in the quest for a greener planet?

The Airspace of the Future consortium believes they can and wants to make it so. It wants autonomous aircraft incorporated into the UK’s transport infrastructure so that they become as essential and everyday as a public bus, working within a more holistic aviation system. This shift to the skies will alleviate pressure on ground level networks, reducing congestion and helping the country towards its net zero targets – as well as creating opportunities for the UK’s manufacturing and service sectors.

You don’t need to be an environmental scientist to know that the UK’s overcrowded roads increase damaging emissions. Nor, however, do you need to be an expert in aviation or infrastructure to picture the problems that need to be solved before drones can populate our skies effectively and safely.

There are logistical issues: what will the drones transport? Who controls their routes and how? Who funds the drones and the systems surrounding them? How do you change the public perception of something often seen as a nuisance or a menace? And how do you stop them colliding with manned aircraft, tall structures, and each other?

Thankfully, the consortium, which sits under the UKRI’s Future Flight Challenge programme, is full of experts across several relevant fields. It comprises nine partners: Thales, Cranfield University, Cranfield Airport Operations, Inmarsat, Altitude Angel, Ocado Group, Blue Bear, Satellite Applications Catapult and Connected Places Catapult. These bodies also represent the interests and perspectives of government, large industry, SMEs, the research sector, and end users.

With its collective knowledge – and a £125m funding kitty – Airspace of the Future has identified ‘enablers’ that will help overcome these hurdles. These include changing public perception of drones and gaining acceptance of their greater use, suggesting and securing regulation and legislation, making a business case for greater use of autonomous aviation, and identifying and developing the necessary technology.

It is producing reports and white papers across multiple subjects, and, excitingly, will conduct simulated and live trials later in the project.

Information on those trials will be published nearer the time. Meanwhile, we recommend that you watch Connected Places Catapult’s webinar on Airspace of the Future’s mission and plans, which gives an overview of the consortium’s work, graphic representations of both the issues and goals, and a more in-depth discussion of its work.