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Drone delivering package.

Autonomous aircraft in the United Kingdom are getting their own superhighway.

What’s new: The UK government approved Project Skyway, a 165-mile system of interconnected drone-only flight routes. The airspace is scheduled to open by 2024.

How it works: The routes, each just over six miles wide, will connect six medium-sized English cities including Cambridge, Coventry, Oxford, and Rugby. They avoid forested or ecologically sensitive areas, as well as major cities like London and Birmingham.

  • A consortium of businesses will install a ground-based sensor network over the next two years to monitor air traffic along the Skyway. The sensors will supply information to help the drones navigate, removing the need for fliers to carry their own sensors.
  • The sensors will also feed an air-traffic management system from Altitude Angel, which will help the craft avoid midair collisions.
  • The UK government is considering future extensions to coastal urban areas like Southampton and Ipswich.

Behind the news: Project Skyway is the largest proposed designated drone flight zone, but it’s not the only one.

  • A European Union effort based in Ireland aims to develop an air-traffic control system for autonomous aircraft including those used for deliveries, emergency response, agriculture, and personal transportation.
  • In March 2021, authorities in Senegal granted approval for drone startup Volansi to fly its aircraft outside of operators’ line of sight.
  • The California city of Ontario established safe flight corridors for drones built by Airspace Link to fly between warehouses and logistics centers. The plan awaits approval by the United States Federal Aviation Administration.

Yes, but: Although Skyway includes a collision-avoidance system, it’s not designed to prevent accidents during takeoff and landing, when they’re most common. Moreover, it's not yet clear whether the plan includes designated takeoff and landing sites. “The problem is what happens when you're 10 feet away from people,” one aerospace engineer told the BBC.

Why it matters: Drones are restricted from flying in most places due to worries that they could interfere — or collide — with other aircraft. By giving them their own airspace, the UK is allowing drones to deliver on their potential without putting other aircraft at risk.

We’re thinking: Figuring out how to operate drones safely has proven one of the most difficult aspects of deploying them in commercial applications. This project is a big step toward ironing out the regulatory bugs and also provides a relatively safe space to address technical issues.


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