Drones must be safely integrated into the UK aviation ecosystem under a single unified airspace if the sector is to fully realise the benefits of this new technology, said Dave Curtis, safety and sustainability director at NATS.

Speaking at the DroneX conference and exhibition at the London Excel centre, Curtis said the industry was facing a “once in a generation opportunity and one in which the UK can lead the world as we have done since the very dawn of the aviation industry more than 100 years ago”.

But he added: “Safe integration of drones to the aviation in a single unified airspace is the key to unlocking the benefits of a new generation of flight.”

NATS is due to launch a consultation on how best to support the expected influx of AAM operators in the coming years. The agency, responsible for managing airspace in the UK, aims to unlock the full potential of new airspace users.

Curtis added: “The biggest challenge facing the industry isn’t the technology and isn’t even the regulation – it is maintaining aviation’s incredible safety record as we begin to scale operations. So to achieve this, we still need airspace management to ensure safe separation.

“There will be more of us in the sky. Improved situational awareness is even more important as aircraft with unconventional flying characteristics take to the sky and electronic conspicuity is essential.”

NATS drone whitepaper

Earlier this year NATS, along with a number of drone operating companies and users, published a whitepaper detailing the steps required to unleash the full value of the sector to the UK economy. Key is enabling ‘Beyond Visual Line of Sight’ (BVLOS) operations, meaning that drones can be flown outside the limits of what an operator can physically see.

The whitepaper also proposes a roadmap for how airspace could be managed for uncrewed aircraft in the future, and the steps required to get there, so that those in the industry can plan and invest accordingly.

New research carried out for NATS by Ipsos UK shows the public supports the wide use of drones for everything from couriering medicines through to parcel delivery and border control.

According to NATS’ annual survey – called the Aviation Index – three quarters of the UK public support drones being used by the emergency services, 70% support their use for infrastructure projects, such as inspecting powerlines, and 55% support the idea of them being used for routine deliveries.
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