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UK lays world's longest autonomous drone superhighway

And guess which ACDC classic will blare at the 2024 ribbon cutting?

The United Kingdom - or, rather, a 165-mile stretch of it - will soon be the home of the longest autonomous drone highway in the world.

Project Skyway's 265km route will stretch from Reading to Coventry, forming a "T" shape by jutting out north of Oxford and running to Cambridge. Milton Keynes and Rugby are also in the Skyway's airspace. 

Leading the project is Reading-based Unified Traffic Management and Altitude Angel, also a traffic management company. Britain's national telco BT is also part of it, and is providing connectivity for drones in the Skyway through its EE subsidiary's network. A number of other UK startups are participating as well, Altitude Angel said in a statement. Funding for the project comes from the InnovateUK programme.

The Skyway won't just be an air corridor designated for drone use: It will be lined with ground infrastructure from Altitude Angel known as ARROW, which serves as a larger traffic coordination system.

First tested in a smaller deployment south of Reading, ARROW will establish a 500-meter wide "drone zone" along the Skyway that extends the abilities of autonomous drones to detect and avoid other unmanned aircraft flying the same path. Ultimately, the Skyway's systems interface "in real-time to create an ultra-high-resolution moving map of the low-altitude sky," Altitude Angel said. 

Because drones have a wide array of communications capabilities, the Skyway will be outfitted with ground-based sensors and communication hardware that coordinates with onboard drone sensors to feed air traffic control data to autonomous aircraft as they fly. The system will be managed, appropriately, by an automated traffic management system.

"Any drone manufacturer [can] connect a drone's guidance and communication systems into a virtual superhighway system which takes care of guiding drones safely through 'corridors', onward to their destinations, using only a software integration," Altitude Angel said. 

In terms of what the Skyway will be used for, BT director of drones Dave Pankhurst said it's less about new use cases and more about scaling current technology. 

"This drone capability has existed for quite some time, but is in its infancy in terms of being actually part of our society and being a usable application… for us, this is about taking a significant step towards that point. It's going to open up so many opportunities," Pankhurst told the BBC

The target date to have drones navigating the Skyway is mid 2024, but one problem still remains to be tackled: The off-Skyway last mile of a drone's trip. Pankhurst told the BBC that the project was coordinating with the Civil Aviation Authority to ensure drones that have taken an off ramp are still operating safely. ®

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