The UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) has announced the National Beyond visual line of site Experimentation Corridor (NBEC), based at Cranfield University, as one of six participants to join the ‘Innovation Sandbox’.

The newly launched Innovation Sandbox is a virtual space in which new technology can be safely tested. It offers innovative companies the chance to discuss, explore, trial and test emerging concepts, helping the UK’s aviation sector to continue to be at the forefront of technology.

Regulations currently require drones to operate within visual line of sight of the operator at all times. The NBEC partners, Cranfield University, Blue Bear, Thales and Vodafone, aim to create an experimentation corridor that will enable drones and unmanned aircraft to fly in the same airspace. The corridor will stretch across Bedfordshire from Blue Bear’s headquarters in Oakley to Cranfield University’s airport.

Announcing the new Innovation Sandbox, Tim Johnson, Director at the UK Civil Aviation Authority, said: “The UK is a global leader for aviation innovation and we are excited to be playing our role to support this.

“Public safety remains our number one priority, and our Innovation Sandbox will allow for the creation of world-first technologies, tried and tested in a safe environment.”  

The CAA's innovation team will work closely with the participants to help them understand how they can meet regulatory requirements. Ultimately, this will be one of the elements these innovators will need in order to bring their new aviation and travel products and services to market.

Professor Iain Gray, Cranfield’s Director of Aerospace, said: “The potential of drones and unmanned vehicles to boost UK productivity is well documented and the technology is well developed. However, there are understandable regulatory concerns that need to be overcome about how they operate alongside manned aircraft.

“Being part of the UK Civil Aviation Authority's Sandbox will allow the NBEC team to develop NBEC into a national asset that will pioneer the integration of manned and unmanned aircraft."

Launched in August 2018, the NBEC corridor was trialled in February when Blue Bear executed three-kilometre Extended Visual Line of Sight (EVLOS) race track flights within the Cranfield Air Traffic Zone, using their Blackstart Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) towards their facility in Oakley. Under EVLOS conditions, observers are used to maintain the line of sight while providing situational awareness to the operator.

Notes for editors

The new UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) Innovation Team, initially funded by a Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) grant, has launched the Innovation Sandbox with six participants.

Altitude Angel - a company delivering solutions which enable the safe integration and use of highly automated drones into airspace. Through its airspace management platform, GuardianUTM O/S, it delivers software foundations for safely unlocking the potential of drones.

Amazon - a future delivery system from Amazon designed to safely get packages to customers in 30 minutes or less using unmanned aerial vehicles.

NATS and Searidge Technologies - air traffic control body NATS and its digital tower partner, Searidge Technologies, are working to implement new technology such as Artificial Intelligence (AI) and digital air traffic control towers.

NBEC Consortium - Cranfield University and its partners, Blue Bear Systems Research, Thales and Vodafone are creating an experimentation corridor that will enable drones and unmanned aircraft fly beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) by having their locations tracked and thus safely fly in the same airspace as manned aircraft.

Nesta Challenges - the Flying High Challenge, part of Nesta Challenges, is a collaborative engagement with cities, technologists, researchers, regulators, government, public services and the public to shape the future of urban drone use in the UK.

Volocopter - a company developing electrically powered urban air taxis (#eVTOLs) - based on drone technology - to help modern cities solve their increasing mobility issues.

About Cranfield University

Cranfield University is a specialist postgraduate university that is a global leader for education and transformational research in technology and management.

Cranfield Aerospace

Cranfield is the number one university in Europe for aerospace. We are the only university in Europe to own and run an airport and to have airline status. We have been at the forefront of aerospace technology for 70 years.

As the UK's most business-engaged University, we have long-term relationships and close commercial partnerships with many companies in the sector including Airbus, BAE Systems, Boeing and Rolls-Royce.

Our education, research and consultancy is enhanced by our world-class facilities including the National Flying Laboratory Centre – a unique national asset which provides a hands-on, flying experience, along with flight deck simulators and industrial-scale gas turbine engine test facilities used for performance and diagnostic studies. The Aerospace Integration Research Centre, a £35 million innovative centre built in partnership with Airbus and Rolls-Royce, fosters collaboration between industry and academia. A new £65 million Digital Aviation Research and Technology Centre will also be built at Cranfield to spearhead the UK’s research into digital aviation technology.

Notable Cranfield alumni include Warren East, CEO of Rolls-Royce plc and Ralph Hooper, who attended the College of Aeronautics at Cranfield in 1946 and went on to become one of the UK’s most important post-war aircraft designers, creating the Hawker Harrier jump jet.