A drone flew over the horizon along a 16km ‘corridor’ in trials aimed at developing safe and secure operation of unmanned aircraft alongside other airspace users.

With PwC predicting 76,000 drones flying in UK airspace by 2030, the December test flights in the National BVLOS Experimentation Corridor (NBEC) were aimed at developing infrastructure and systems to track and manage ‘myriad’ users flying in unsegregated airspace between 400 and 10,000 feet.

The drone flew the length of the corridor, from Cranfield University’s research airport in Bedfordshire to the village of Oakley and back again, in a 'pre-planned' flight with human oversight. According to an announcement by Thales, one of the NBEC partners alongside Blue Bear, Cranfield and Vodafone, air and ground sensors – including a holographic radar by Aveillant – tracked and managed the drone’s return journey. The beyond-visual-line-of-sight (BVLOS) flights also included a simulated airspace encounter, to test avoidance manoeuvres.

“The success of the NBEC’s first phase iterative trials shows that safe and consistent BVLOS operations are possible,” the Thales announcement said.

The NBEC, which is also part of the Civil Aviation Authority’s (CAA) Innovation Hub Sandbox initiative, incorporates surveillance and tracking capabilities to provide a ‘fused situational awareness’ picture to allow BVLOS operations.

Flying a drone on a pre-determined flightpath through CAA-authorised airspace is an important step ahead of the predicted increase in air traffic. Practical uses of BVLOS drone flights could include wind turbine blade inspection, traffic monitoring, search-and-rescue, power line surveys and medical deliveries.

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