Cranfield University and Cranfield Airport are involved in a project set to integrate drones into everyday life. Project Blueprint is spearheading the development of permanent ‘drone zones’, designated areas of airspace where drones and crewed aircraft can safely co-exist. It will pave the way for drones becoming part of everyday life, undertaking tasks such as medical supply deliveries, or monitoring air quality in real-time.

In a recent event at Cranfield University’s Digital Aviation Research and Technology Centre, partner companies showcased live flight demonstrations, providing a glimpse into the future of drone technology. These demonstrations revealed how drones and crewed aircraft can safely share airspace, thanks to innovative solutions such as ground-based sensor networks that reliably track aircraft, even at low altitudes.

Integrating drones in a safe way

Cranfield’s involvement in the project centres around the University’s expertise in the technologies which ensure safe integration of drones and advanced air mobility in shared airspace.

Professor Antonios Tsourdos, Head of the Autonomous and Cyber-Physical Systems Centre at Cranfield University, said: “Particularly near cities, airports and critical infrastructure, it’s vital that drones are incorporated into civil airspace in an extremely well managed and safe way.

“Cranfield’s research in this area centres around drone and advanced air mobility integration into shared airspace, looking at how air traffic management systems integrate and talk to each other, and developing the flight information displays that are vital to making this a reality. Cranfield is helping to develop safe and operational metrics to ensure that drones ‘detect and avoid’ other aircraft. Without this technology the vision of drone zones would be unfeasible.”

Addressing challenges to the widespread use of drones

Currently safety, privacy and security concerns have limited the widespread use of drones. Project Blueprint is working closely with the UK's aviation regulator, the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), to develop safe and scalable ways to integrate drones into everyday life, overcoming these challenges.

The far-reaching implications of this project will impact various industries, including healthcare, emergency services, logistics, and environmental monitoring. Drones could deliver medical supplies to remote areas, assist in search and rescue operations, or monitor air quality in real-time, transforming the way we live, work, and interact with our environment.

The project is aligned with the Future of Flight Industry Group and funded by the UK Research & Innovation's (UKRI's) Future Flight Challenge, a £300 million program designed to boost innovation in the UK aviation sector. The consortium consists of over 10 partner companies, including leading aerospace universities, air traffic management providers, and aviation safety companies.

The success of Project Blueprint will not only enable the UK to roll out commercial drone use cases at scale but also serve as a model for other countries to follow, further solidifying the UK's position as a leader in regulatory innovation and aviation.

By 2024, the project aims to have the results in place and anticipates a broader showcase on the rollout of technology and open collaboration, which can support the expansion of ‘drone zones’ across the United Kingdom.