Sparking a New Era in Aviation – Drones, Autonomous Vehicles and UTM

A Launch of the Connected Places Catapult Air Mobility Directorate

From the invention of the turbojet to the de Havilland Comet Concorde to the Harrier jump jet, British engineering and ingenuity has consistently shaped the global aviation industry. In recent times, innovation in aviation has been more about incremental changes – improving the safety and efficiency of aircraft that look much the same today as when they first took flight several decades ago. Lately however, that has all begun to change.

The rapid acceleration in technologies, such as electrical power systems and advances in computing power, coupled with the miniaturisation of components, such as navigation systems has sparked a surge in innovation around air mobility unlike anything we’ve seen in recent decades.  Technology which cost millions a decade ago is now available at a fraction of the cost, with consumers able to purchase an inexpensive device – a drone – with flight control and stability systems displaying  performance only previously available to defence customers with deep pockets.

The UK’s industrial and research strengths in both aerospace and aviation services means that UK Plc is well placed to benefit from this surge in innovation activity. For example, market analysis conducted by PWC in 2018 forecast a potential for 76,000 drones to be active in UK skies by 2030, generating a £42 billion impact on the UK economy, including £16 billion of net cost savings from take up of the technology.

Accelerating Through Innovation

The Connected Places Catapult has been at the fore in accelerating market opportunities in ground-based autonomous vehicles and in positioning UK aviation innovators to seize these emerging opportunities for unmanned air mobility. Working with industry, academia, Government and regulators, we have focussed on creating the regulatory, ethical and logistical conditions which will enable the market to develop rapidly and safely, allowing future aerial vehicles to operate – from light delivery drones to the six-seater flying taxis being prototyped by the likes of Vertical Aerospace and Airbus.

Since 2018, we have led the Government’s Drone Pathfinder programme in partnership with the Department for Transport, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy , and the Civil Aviation Authority. The objective of this programme has been to tackle critical barriers to scaled commercial drone service solutions. Five ‘first of a kind’ demonstration programmes have been developed so far through the programme – including infrastructure inspection and coastguard search and rescue. In each case, Connected Places Catapult matched technology providers to priority industrial use cases and worked with the regulator to enable real world demonstration.

Connected Places Catapult has also been at the heart of efforts to develop advanced air traffic management solutions capable of handling the volume and density of drone operations expected in the near future. The development of such automated, unmanned traffic management (UTM) is a critical enabler of scaled commercial applications of air mobility. UK based organisations already have significant global presence in existing manned air traffic management markets, through the supply of products and services. Through our involvement, the UK is in a good position to win the race to set the global standards for UTM systems, frameworks and regulation. Our Open Access UTM Framework Programme, developed in partnership with the Department for Transport, plus a number of companies including AiRXOS (part of GE Aviation), Altitude Angel, ANRA Technologies, Thales UK, Collins Aerospace and Wing will soon be tested in flight trials. The outputs from these trials will give UK based industry a head start on a huge global export opportunity

Beyond these innovation partnerships with the Department for Transport, we have also played a critical role connecting a variety of SMEs to industry, academia and regulators to develop solutions for tomorrow’s aviation as part of the his £300 million R&D programme run by UKRI is focused on the wider system impacts and infrastructure developments which will unlock the potential of drones and larger forms of future air mobility in order to secure first mover advantage for UK firms.

Investing In the Future

In short, this is a time of significant opportunity and innovation in aviation. Connected Places Catapult is proud to have been at the leading edge of that wave, stimulating investment, shaping R&D-friendly regulations, and brokering high-value partnerships between industry, innovators and the research community. We are pleased to be building on those investments now by establishing a new Air Mobility Directorate to enable us to create even more impact in this market. This new team will build on our success to date and amplify our support to UK air mobility innovators by:

  • stewarding Connected Places Catapult’s involvement in Future Flight;
  • advancing and scaling work with the Department for Transport to enable beyond visual line of sight trials (BVLoS) and unmanned traffic management (UTM); and
  • incubating other relevant CR&D opportunities;
  • delivering the Connected Places Catapult’s Future Air Mobility Delivery Plan.

The new directorate will also lead on our work to catalyse sustainable aviation systems. With transport systems and the buildings contributing over half of all carbon emissions, accelerating the transition to Net Zero lies at the heart of our business strategy. Building on our past experience in reducing excess fuel burn in commercial aircrafts and , the Air Mobility directorate will work to spark innovation in airport operations to reduce carbon and wider environmental impacts through, for example, the integration of airport operations into critical infrastructure such as surface transport and energy networks.

Connect. Spark. Accelerate

At Connected Places Catapult we connect businesses to cutting-edge research and technologies in order to spark new possibilities and accelerate the creation of innovative products and services which deliver step-change improvements in the way we live, work, play and travel. We are recruiting a range of roles to mobilise the new Air Mobility directorate. If you have detailed technical knowledge of this industry, the desire to deliver UK success and a track record in getting things done, we want to hear from you.

Find out more on the Connected Places Catapult careers page.