Updated: May 13
It barely needs stating that the coronavirus pandemic has had a devastating impact on the global aviation industry. Commercial passenger travel is seeing unprecedented drops in capacity of 90-100% across the UK and Europe as governments seal off borders and advise against or ban travel completely. Thousands have lost their jobs and many more are likely to in the coming months as debt-ridden carriers around the world haemorrhage cash and struggle to survive.
It is a deeply difficult time for everyone in aviation, and our heartfelt best wishes go out to everyone affected, including many close friends and associates.
Aviation has always been an industry that feels like a big family and we're seeing some wonderful examples of people pulling together to help each other out, not to mention the monumental air freight effort that's keeping medical professionals and key workers supplied with PPE and medical supplies, and the rest of us with everything else that fits in the belly of an airliner or can be strapped down to the seats of a hastily reconfigured passenger cabin.
BRING ON THE DRONES
There are however a few bright lights and some hints as to where the future for the aviation industry might increasingly lie - one standout winner at the moment are drones, and specifically the nascent enterprise of drone delivery. Just a few months ago it was still viewed by many as pie-in-the-sky with just a few pilot projects spread around the world (see our article on Google's Wing from March 6th), and fear that a lack of public acceptance and airspace restrictions might kill off this nascent corner of aviation innovation before it ever got going.
However with social distancing measures looking set to become part of all our lives until / if a vaccine for Covid-19 is developed and widely available, the ability to deliver small items of freight to remote communities with no human-to-human contact has become increasingly appealing to both governments and perhaps to the public. Having considerably emptier airspace to run the Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) operations the drones require might also be helping accelerate trials, enabling operations to run with higher safety margins and in a more benign flying environment than ever before.
From coronavirus testing kits, urgently needed drugs and PPE today to vaccines (we all hope), blood and organs tomorrow, there's plenty that drones can start delivering in the UK right now. It's worth noting that thanks to Silicon Valley's Zipline many of these items are already being delivered by drone via nationwide aerial logistics networks in Rwanda and Ghana already today.
Though Amazon is rumoured to have been running trials of a commercial drone delivery service in rural Cambridgeshire for several years now precious little has leaked out from the internet behemoth's secretive proving ground for their long promised Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs). Google too are rumoured to have been sniffing around the UK earlier this year to gauge its suitability as an expansion market for Wing, graduate of their 'X' Silicon Valley 'moonshot factory'.
But with little media coverage and big tech companies wary of a public backlash that could preclude future market growth, the British public have barely had drone delivery on their radar. That all changed on April 24th when Secretary of State for Transport Grant Shapps announced an accelerated trial of drone deliveries from the UK mainland to the Isle of Wight, during the Government's daily national coronavirus update, watched by millions:
Now we have an urgent need, so we're making use of that testing programme as part of our response to COVID-19. As a result I've fast racked trails to begin next week to carry medical supplies and equipment to St Mary's hospital near Newport on the Isle of Wight.
A PROvING GROUND in the royal navy's backyard
With just over 140,00 inhabitants the Isle of Wight is the second most populous area (after Northern Ireland) that has no fixed link to the British mainland - relying instead on expensive and slow ferry connections from Portsmouth (home to the Royal Navy), Southampton and Lymington. The coronavirus pandemic might have eased traffic congestion on the mainland but it has also severely impacted the timetables of island ferry operators.
Work has been underway since at least 2018 to explore the viability of delivering blood products from hospitals in Southampton, Portsmouth and Bournemouth to St Mary's Hospital on the island via drone, in shipments of 'a few kilos' (Source: Nesta).
It was around a year after this report by Nesta (an innovation foundation) was published that a group of public authorities in the South of England 'Solent Transport' were ready to submit their bid for government funding to support a trial of such a service. The concept had expanded to include delivery of both chemotherapy drugs and blood test samples (as reported in The Telegraph 03/01/20).
The key obstacles just a few months ago were expected to be public pushback and the congested and operating in the complex and busy airspace found in the region - both of which seem far less of a problem right now as the skies are largely clear of air traffic. £26m was awarded to the organisation in mid-March of which £8m is said to have been earmarked for the drone logistics project.
INTEGRATING INTO BUSY AIRSPACE
The Solent region features complex and congested airspace of differing types as can be seen in the aviation chart below. There's a complex patchwork of Class A and D airspace with domestic and international traffic coming into and out of Southampton Airport, HM Coastguard operating out of Solent Airport as well as military helicopters being maintained at Fleetlands. There's typically a lot going on in the area before you throw in the light aircraft operating out of nearby Goodwood and other pleasure flyers who flock to the area on a sunny day to enjoy some of the country's most spectacular flying around the rugged south coast of 'The Island'.
The area is also home to the headquarters of the UK's main Air Navigation Service Provider (ANSP) 'NATS' who are working on this project to better understand how they might integrate Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) with other airspace users. The Solent area is quite the proving ground for this emerging field of aerial logistics - there's been such a problem with (mostly) private pilots infringing on airspace they shouldn't be in over the last few years (over 1,000 separate incidents were recorded in 2015) that a special collaborative trial has now been running in the region for some time in an effort to keep all users of the airspace where they should be. Fellow flyers aside there are densely populated urban areas almost everywhere around Solent Airport itself and a long stretch of water under any flight path between it and the Isle of Wight - and on a Summer's day it can be busier than the skies with a plethora of watercraft from yachts and dinghies to ferries, hovercraft and large commercial vessels making use of the large deepwater docks at Southampton.
You can get a quick glimpse of the expected flightpath below - departing Solent Airport the destination is c. 10km away at Binstead Airfield just south-east of Fishbourne which in turn is c. 6 miles away from St Mary's Hospital - the final destination of the COVID-19 fighting cargo - taking around 12 minutes more by road. The BBC reports that the government expect up to four flights per day to be made depending upon need, and presumably the weather being within the aircraft's safe operating limits.
THE WINDRACER ULTRA UAV DRONE
There are a few features of this project that make it quite different to other drone delivery trials we've encountered to date - and much of that is down to the appearance of the Windracer Unmanned Large Transport Aircraft or 'ULTRA' (pictured below). With the exception of it being pilotless, the aircraft might look as at home in 1920 as in 2020.
Whilst Amazon, Zipline, Wing, DJI, eHang and almost every other civilian drone manufacturer in the world favours an emissions-free all-electric powertrain, and most military drones are powered by turbines, Windracer have opted for good old fashioned AvGas guzzling piston engines and wooden propellers. The aircraft doesn't appear to have detect-and-avoid capabilities on board and with its traditional fixed wing configuration vertical take-off and landing capabilities are conspicuous by their absence.
So it potentially pollutes like an old Cessna, can only operate from runways and might have less ability to avoid obstacles than a $500 DJI drone - what's going on here exactly? Don't discount the plucky British plane just yet.
The ULTRA can carry 100kg / 220 lbs of cargo 1,000km / 621 miles
What it lacks in cutting edge electric propulsion tech it more than makes up for in payload and range - the company claims the ULTRA can carry an impressive 100kg of cargo 1,000km. And consider that it's been designed specifically for delivering aid in crises, cheaply, by a privately funded not-for-profit. This is a tool designed for quite a specific set of requirements in mind. It was designed and built by a team at the University of Southampton to distribute aid in places like Syria, South Sudan, Yemen and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The ULTRA's low tech credentials might just make it more acceptable to operate in such politically sensitive places more fearful of a tech laden alternative.
There is some fairly cutting edge tech lurking under that unassuming fabric skin however - from a high-reliability flight control system developed by subsidiary company Distributed Avionics to cloud-based mission management software - the vision is for this system to be capable of fully automated operations.
40kg of PPE ACROSS the Solent in 10 minutes
For the Isle of Wight coronavirus trials the aircraft will only take up to 40kg of cargo initially, subject to the needs of the NHS Care Trusts involved. But how will this big drone safely operate? Well its size could well be a big advantage in that other pilots in the uncontrolled Visual Flight Rules (VFR) airspace in which it's set to operate have a pretty good chance of seeing the thing! But any pilot planning a flight in the area should not have missed the rather large new 'Danger Area' slapped down across the Solent to warn them of the possible presence of the aircraft.
You can consider that humble blue rectangle above to be a fairly significant point in the development of British aviation - it might just be the UK's first corridor of airspace set aside (albeit temporarily) for commercial drone delivery. It's currently set to run from 01/03/2020 to 31/07/2020 between surface level and up to 2,000ft Above Mean Sea Level (AMSL).
The Danger Area notice issued by NATS and the UK's Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) also sheds some further light on the operation:
The aircraft is classed as a Remotely Piloted Aircraft System (RPAS)
Takeoff and landing will be conducted by (presumably) two operators who each have visual line of sight during the procedure
On reaching top of its climb the aircraft will transition to Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLoS) flight
The aircraft has no 'Detect and Avoid' capability
Subject to assessment during the trial the base of the Danger Area may be lifted from surface up to 1,000ft AMSL
The landing point on the Isle of Wight is Binstead Airfield, a small private strip
With no novel power systems to certify, reduced ferry capacity to the island and severe shortages of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) across the UK's National Health Service (NHS) due to the coronavirus pandemic, the first flights with up to 40kg of the kit should be departing imminently and be warmly welcomed by staff at St Mary's.
FlightRadar24 has already tracked the aircraft making several movements at Solent Airport in the last few days, including what appear to be a series of circuits flown yesterday (Monday 04/05/20) as shown below:
The Windracer aircraft is just one part of a multi-modal system helping to connect hospitals in the county of Hampshire with healthcare facilities on the island. A programme of drone logistics activities that will take place over several years has only just begun and we're excited to see how it develops.
The key here will be the data collected and the findings that feed into the development of a Universal Traffic Management (UTM) system that is certified to allow drones to operate remotely in UK airspace - that's a multi billion pound prize. And with NATS on board we wouldn't bet against that solution having a very favourable position in the UK market, where airspace is (normally) as complex and congested as almost anywhere in the world.
UPDATE - the project was covered on BBC Breakfast News and the piece is embedded below: