Aviation, aerospace and industrial giants unite to develop advanced drone system for industrial and urban environments

A consortium of 16 entities led by sees.ai, a specialist drone command & control solution developer, including industrial giants BAE Systems, NATS and Vodafone, has won a share of £30 million to develop and test a remotely operated drone system for industrial and urban environments.

The futuristic system will enable remote inspection and monitoring of industrial sites (construction, nuclear and oil & gas), urban sites in the public domain e.g. road & rail and telecoms infrastructure, and enable live emergency services support.

The system, which uses similar technology to autonomous cars, enables highly automated drones to be flown under tight human supervision by pilots based in a central control room hundreds of miles away. Pilots can precisely execute complex missions remotely – even reactive missions (designed on-the-fly) and close-quarter missions encountering GPS-denial, magnetic interference and degradation & loss of comms.

Congested area operations are very challenging, but the potential reward for unlocking these types of mission in terms of public health & safety, cost efficiency and environmental impact is huge. No single entity could make this happen alone, so this consortium of aviation, aerospace, industrial and emergency service giants, together with www.sees.ai has joined forces to advance the system and integrate it into the wider aviation ecosystem.

The funding comes from the Future Flight Challenge, Phase 2 competition, part of the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund, delivered by UK Research and Innovation.

Technical contributors to the consortium are: BAE Systems, NATS, The Met Office, Vodafone, University of Bristol Smart Internet Lab, Flock Cover and UAM Consult Ltd.

The project involves the system being put through a series of tests, increasing in complexity and challenge, with end-client organisations: Atkins; Skanska; Skanska Costain STRABAG working in partnership with HS2; Sellafield; Vodafone; Network Rail; and Lancashire Fire and Rescue Service. During these tests the system will be operated by two of the world’s leading drone service providers, Terra Drone and Sky-Futures or by the in-house drone teams at Sellafield, Network Rail, and Lancashire Fire and Rescue Service.

Allan Wake, Technical Manager, New Concepts for BAE Systems said:

“We’ve been impressed by the innovative technologies sees.ai are developing to push the boundaries of autonomous flight. The ability to conduct Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) flights will be a game changer for many industries, including defence. We’re working collaboratively to share our expertise in systems integration and our experience in developing autonomous systems to help sees.ai drive a technology breakthrough for aviation. We continue to watch and support the activity with keen interest.”

Louisa Smith, Head of R&D at NATS said:

Drones represent an exciting development and offer new opportunities for emergency services, businesses and individuals across the globe. At NATS, we want to deliver a system which ensures all airspace users can operate safely alongside each other. This Future Flight project will enable us to further develop capabilities by collaborating with partners that will future-proof our systems to provide safe and secure services for everyone who wants to fly any type of aircraft in our skies.”

Anne Sheehan, Business Director, Vodafone UK said:

“For drones to deliver on their huge potential in business, we have to reduce the reliance on people – we have to enable safe and managed flights without the dependence on the traditional piloted approach. With our technology, we can play a crucial role in that and we’re looking forward to working with our partners to develop this vital capability.”

John McKenna, CEO of sees.ai said:

“The Future Flight Challenge funding will accelerate us towards a future where drones fly autonomously at scale – high up alongside manned aviation and low down inside our industrial sites, suburbs and cities. Unlocking the safe and remote operation of drones in urban and industrial locations will deliver huge benefits to society across public health & safety, efficiency and environmental impact. We are enormously proud to be leading this consortium and to be working with such incredible partners to develop this advanced Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) aviation system.

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For more information about the project please contact [email protected].

Read on for more quotes.

“We are fully supporting the Government’s Future Flight Challenge, and particularly the organisations that our innovation team will be directly working with, to help make sure the UK benefits from the latest technology while maintaining the high standards of safety expected from aviation.” David Tait, Head of Innovation, UK Civil Aviation Authority.

“The specialist equipment services team provides engineering and maintenance support to the whole of Sellafield and we continually seek out areas of innovation to improve services on our complex and congested site. This new technology has huge potential for our future operations; making our work safer, faster and more cost effective. We’re proud to be at the forefront of a national challenge and our experienced team, together with our local supply chain partners, is demonstrating every day how we can truly make a difference for our mission and beyond.” Mark Foster, Head of Specialist Equipment Services, Sellafield.

“This technology has the potential to revolutionise how we use drones at Sellafield, increasing the operational envelope and transforming the way in which drones are piloted. This helps ensure we are always using the best available technology so we can continuously improve our service to the Sellafield site and the rest of the NDA Group” Peter Allport, Remote Handling Lead, Sellafield Engineering & Maintenance.

“Innovation across the industry is of crucial importance in moving the sector into a smart, faster, cleaner way of delivering infrastructure in the 21st century. Everyone has a role to play because the potential opportunities and benefits are considerable. SCS’s involvement is an excellent demonstration of its forward thinking mindset, which is hugely welcome.” Howard Mitchell, Head of Innovation, HS2 Ltd.

“It’s exciting to be part of this trial to safely fly drones beyond visual line of sight in industrial environments. Although drones are by no means a new concept they are still far from business as usual and we are only just scratching the surface of their potential. We are always looking at new ways to improve safety, work more efficiently and deliver a world leading project such as HS2. It’s great to be working with a pioneering company such as sees.ai to support our existing capabilities.” Harrison O’Hara, Innovation Manager, Skanska Costain STRABAG Joint Venture.

“The Met Office is delighted to be involved in this very exciting and forward-looking project. The opportunity to contribute to the development of safe beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) drone operations for real-world applications is a great privilege. Working alongside partners who will operate drones, support their use and benefit from their capabilities establishes great synergies to achieve the safe, efficient and reliable operational services of the future.” Chris Tyson, Autonomous Vehicle Lead, Met Office.

“Carrying out inspections and monitoring activities using drones has already proven to be a valuable way to safely access accurate, real-time data on construction activities. Being able to do this remotely, without the need for teams of specialist drone operators on site will reduce costs and increase the speed in which these activities can be deployed. We are really excited to be part of this consortium and help realise these efficiency benefits for Skanska, our customers and the wider construction industry.” Felipe Manzatucci, Digitalisation Director, Skanska UK.

“We are excited to be involved in this world-leading drone research and technology with sees.ai. The collaboration will benefit all emergency services in the future as it will enhance public and firefighter safety whilst enabling drones to operate safely in congested areas.” Tim Murrell, Group Manager, Lancashire Fire & Rescue Service.

“Sky-Futures has always been a company to look beyond the technology of today. Humans and machines will continue to operate in harmony but the separation between human and machine will continue to grow as technology and systems develop. Working with sees.ai on this project, and as a partner company, underscores our view on where drone technology and the application of it will advance to. We are excited by the potential for this consortium and the technology it brings to market.” Chris Blackford, CEO, Sky-Futures.

“As a leading research institution in 5G and beyond, Smart Internet Lab researchers at the University of Bristol will push the boundaries of telecommunication research and explore how end-to-end network architecture can be utilised to facilitate autonomous operation of future drones. We are excited to collaborate with the UK industry, and this consortium, on the development of autonomous drones and the opportunity to train the next generation of engineers with unique and cross disciplinary skills in integration of telecommunication with drone systems.” Prof Reza Nejabati, Expert in High Performance and Autonomous Networks, University of Bristol’s Smart Internet Lab

“Our pioneering research in future telecommunications is now enabling us to drive digital transformation, using 5G technologies, on a number of sectors, (tourism, manufacturing, logistics, digital creative, utilities etc). We are delighted to contribute to this innovative project and shape the development of autonomous drones.” Professor Dimitra Simeonidou, Director of the Smart Internet Lab at the University of Bristol.

“We’re delighted to be playing a small part in the evolution of unmanned aviation in the UK and beyond. This coming together of innovative organisations, forward-thinking regulators, and highly supportive public bodies is paving the way for a safer and smarter future.” Ed Leon Klinger, CEO of Flock, a UK insurtech specialising insurance and risk management