Drones will be routinely flown beyond a human operator’s line of sight for the first time in a significant step towards household parcel deliveries by air.
It was announced today that the aviation watchdog had approved plans for the remote piloting of drones on a trial basis — part of a major change in the way the technology is regulated.
The move will initially allow a private technology company to use drones to carry out inspections of infrastructure, including the construction of the HS2 railway line, the motorway network and the Sellafield nuclear site. Drone technology will also be permitted to assist fire and rescue crews, such as in searches for missing people and providing rapid responses to road accidents.
The trial is a significant first step towards the routine use of drones for services such as parcel delivery to shoppers’ homes. Amazon has been working on its drone delivery service since 2013, and pledges that it will be able to fly packages weighing up to 5lb as far as 15 miles in the coming years.
At present, drones in the UK must be flown within a pilot’s visual range — typically up to 1,600ft. They also have to remain at a maximum altitude of 400ft to avoid collisions with aircraft, and away from built-up areas.
Beyond-line-of-sight operations are allowed only in specific, restricted cases, which is a huge barrier for wider deployment of the technology.
However, today the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) said it had granted permission for Sees.ai, a West Sussex-based technology company, to operate drones beyond the line of sight without needing authorisation for each flight.
The CAA said: “Removing this limitation … fires the starting gun for the next phase of growth of the drone industry.” It said further use of beyond-line-of-sight flights would be considered to “significantly increase operational effectiveness and efficiency”.
The permission initially relates to three test flights: one at Sees.ai’s HQ north of Chichester, another at the nearby Goodwood aerodrome and a third at an unnamed construction site managed by contractors Skanska.
In each case, drones will be piloted by a human operator at a remote location rather than within direct sight, although a human observer will initially oversee safety.
The trials, due to start in the coming weeks and all taking place at altitudes below 150ft, will be used to gather data on the safe operation of remote drones and the risks involved.
Later this year, a further nine trials will get under way, which will see remote drones being put to use for specific purposes. These will include surveying work involved in the construction of the HS2 rail link between London and Birmingham.
There will be similar surveys of Sellafield in Cumbria; the mainline railway on behalf of Network Rail; and inspections of the motorway network for Atkins, the engineering company. Additionally, the company will use drones as part of operations with the Lancashire Fire and Rescue Service.
The project is funded through public grants and private investment. Sees.ai has already won a share of a £30 million government funding pot to revolutionise flight operations in the UK.
John McKenna, Sees.ai chief executive, said: “We are accelerating towards a future where drones fly autonomously at scale, high up alongside manned aviation and low down inside our industrial sites, suburbs and cities. Securing this UK-first permission is a major step on this journey, which will deliver big benefits to society.
“This is about winning hearts and minds before we can start to think about things like package delivery. That will certainly happen eventually but there’s definitely lots of work to do first: there is a need to de-risk the technology, to ensure regulators are satisfied and to get the public on board.
“I can’t see a homeowner allowing a drone near their home until they see it normalised in an industrial capacity.”