Credit Altitude Angel
Credit Altitude Angel.

The UK may soon be home to a 165-mile “drone superhighway” – a dedicated lane of airspace for cargo drones across the east of England.

Project Skyway, led by a consortium, including Reading-based software developer Altitude Angel, hopes to secure airspace permission initially over Oxford, Milton Keynes, Cambridge, Coventry and Rugby, hoping to add Southampton and Ipswich later on.

The project offers “a decentralised approach to point-to-point deliveries”, which could take trucks off roads, a spokesperson for the developer said.

“Drone operators don’t need to take off from specific drone ports if the operator has permission to take off from the landowner within the ‘superhighway’ corridor.”

The drones would “use detect and avoid (DAA) networks, orchestrated by algorithmic traffic-control on the ground, to adjust their flight plans in real time, enabling them to share airspace with other craft”, said the company.

The service would be provided through “software and connectivity integrations”, which would require no additional hardware onboard the drones, and it added that today, a typical high-end  battery-powered hexacopter drone can carry about 2kg for one hour, at a speed of 70 kph in good weather conditions.

Online retail giant Amazon says 86% of its packages weigh 2.25kg or less, making them well within weight tolerances for electric quadcopter drones. With no motorway traffic to contend with, an electric drone in theory could cover the distance between Reading and Oxford with time to spare; although, getting to Coventry, 75 km as the drone flies, would strain the limits of today’s technology.

On the other end of the scale, some companies are getting around the low power density of batteries by using hydrocarbon fuels and an aerodynamic monoplane architecture. Recently The Loadstar reported on the Black Swan, a cargo drone which can carry 350kg for distances of 2,500km (1,349 nautical miles) using bioethanol.

Although the environmental impact of taking cargo off vans and putting it on hydrocarbon-powered UAVs would be deleterious, Altitude Angel believes this can be implemented in an environmentally friendly fashion.

“The use of drones, powered by green, renewable energies, can avoid traffic delays,” said the spokesperson. “It is too early to say how many trucks drones will take off roads, but their use will undoubtedly be greener.”

The main selling point, however, is speed. Sensitive cargo like medical supplies – such as NHS deliveries between remote Scottish islands –Altitude Angel said were providing the initial impetus drone technology needs to get off the ground, as “…transporting blood and medical samples for testing using traditional transport methods is both costly and time consuming”.