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Two big ways the UK drone space took a crucial leap forward this summer

The UK drone space got not one but two significant upgrades this month — but both of them have to do with a single company. UTM (Unified Traffic Management) technology provider Altitude Angel, which itself is based in the UK, this summer made two major announcements that help propel forward a major airspace that had been — by many accounts — lagging behind its western peers.

In its first of two major rollouts this July, Altitude Angel announced that it would begin rolling out a purpose-built, low-altitude aviation surveillance network. That makes it possible to detect drones and other low-altitude aircraft, a crucial step in enabling automated drone operations beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) so drones can safely fly without crashing into each other.

And just a couple days later, Altitude Angel released a drone flight approval platform, which allows drone pilots to submit requests to fly in the controlled airspace of what for now is about 120 airports. From there, airport operators can easily approve (or decline) flight requests digitally, in some cases giving the operator an almost instantaneous answer.

Here’s what you need to know about the two new Altitude Angel product launches, and what it means for the future of the UK drone industry:

Altitude Angel’s low-altitude aviation surveillance network

Surveillance is the official title, but it’s a bit of a misnomer. Don’t think of this as surveillance in the sense of spying, but rather tracking how busy the airspace is, and where the traffic is. In order to have a future where many drones fly through the same air space, each drone needs to know where the other is so they don’t accidentally collide.

That’s exactly what Altitude Angel is rolling out in the UK right now — a network that includes ADS-B, Mode S and SDR capabilities, plus the ability to detect existing and future ‘Remote ID’ broadcasts. That network will detect ‘Remote ID’ broadcasts from transmitters on drones. In short, Altitude Angel’s sensor network can detect not only drones that intentionally broadcast their location electronically, but also drones that don’t broadcast their location.

With that information, Altitude Angel is able to build a high-resolution, near real-time digital map of the low-altitude airspace.

While the rollout is happening over time (for now it’s been tested across four sites), it could eventually become the UK’s largest commercial, aviation-grade sensor network specifically optimized for low-altitude drone and aircraft detection (assuming Altitude Angel executes on its goals and no other company beats them to it). Altitude Angel said it has plans to roll out its network further to about 30 sites across the Midlands and Southeast of England.

What is ADS-B, Mode S, SDR and Remote ID?

ADS-B is a technology that has long been used in general aviation for aircraft to broadcast their location. While not a perfect technology (for example, ADS-B signals are not generally required to be broadcast by all types of aircraft, are unencrypted and easily spoofable), ADS-B signals can often transmit useful information such as the aircraft’s position and registration information.

Mode S is similar to ADS-B is, though Mode S only broadcasts an aircraft’s ‘address’ (or registration number), but does not convey position information. Mode S is considered a type of Secondary Surveillance Radar that — through a dedicated network of sensors — engages in a process called multilateration. Multilateration is essentially a fancy word for the concept of estimating an aircraft’s position based on he precise time each aircraft’s registration number is first seen across a variety of sensors positioned at geographically different locations.

SDR is short for Software Defined Radio.

Remote ID is a sort of all-encompassing term used to describe broadcast signals that drones will eventually be required to emit. From there, local receivers operated by any interested party can determine the drone’s location and identification information (and sometimes also the actual pilot).

Why Altitude Angel’s ‘map of the airspace’ is big for the UK drone industry

Prior to Altitude Angel’s launch, the UK’s system for detecting aircraft and drones entailed patchy coverage. They also often were limited to just a few features, such as only one particular type of transmission, and they often had delays (low latency) which isn’t great when aircraft are flying toward another aircraft at high speeds.  This new tech should mitigate those challenges.

Aviation geeks (or just anxious travelers) might already be familiar with plane tracking software’, such as Flight Radar or FlightAware. Altitude Angel’s system is much like this, albeit for aircraft flying at much lower altitudes (like drones).

“In building this network, we’re building the most comprehensive, real-time picture of whatever is moving through the country’s low-altitude airspace,” said Richard Parker, Altitude Angel, CEO and founder. “The sensor network is a key component in the enablement of the digitisation of low-altitude airspace, leading toward greater visibility of air traffic, and enabling automated BVLOS drone operations anywhere in the UK at scale, while providing operators of uncrewed aircraft the security they need to operate safely in unsegregated airspace.”

Altitude Angel’s UTM Ready program

The second of two major announcements out of Altitude Angel this summer is the rollout of its UTM Ready program. With it comes a standard, nationwide, digital approval service across UK airport infrastructure.

Now, drone pilots can submit requests through Altitude Angel’s Drone Assist app (and its desktop app, to fly in the controlled airspace of over 120 airports that are connected to Altitude Angel’s Approval Services platform. The Drone Assist app relaunched in 2023 to add a more robust set of industry-ready flight planning tools, including paving the way for this latest set of news.

Drone Assist App Altitude Angel
A view of the Drone Assist app from Altitude Angel, which relaunched in spring 2023. Photo courtesy of Altitude Angel.

From there, airports that are already participating in the company’s Approval Services program will be able to approve (or decline) the flight request digitally, in some cases giving the operator an almost instantaneous answer. 

For those airports which aren’t connected to the digital platform (and thus are operating analog style) , Altitude Angel will facilitate the request on behalf of the operator by issuing the relevant airport a detailed summary of the planned UAS operation, via email, to ensure compliance with Article 94A of the Air Navigation Order 2016 so further co-ordination and approval can occur. 

The Altitude Angel UTM Ready program classifies airports in one of three categories depending on its ability to approve drone operations digitally: UTM Ready, Basic and Legacy. full digital approvals available. These facilities have deployed compatible UTM services which enable Altitude Angel (or any 3rd party connected to it) to submit and receive full digital flight authorisations airports have full digital approvals available and have deployed compatible UTM services which enable Altitude Angel (or any 3rd party connected to it) to submit and receive full digital flight authorizations. Basic airports have no digital approvals, but support electronic notification, typically via email. And legacy is a kind way of saying old school, as these types of airports (typically small air strips) have no published electronic means of obtaining digital approvals and instead only offer slow, or analogue means of seeking approval such as via fax, or a telephone call.

Altitude Angel UTM Ready
A screenshot from the Altitude Angel UTM Ready site. Photo courtesy of Altitude Angel.

What’s so standout about the UK’s UTM Ready program

In many ways, the UK had been lagging behind other western European counterparts including Switzerland, France, Germany, and Italy — as well as other drone heavyweight countries like Japan. That was largely due to regulatory roadblockers.

But none of those aforementioned countries have been able to deploy a standard, nationwide, digital approval service across its airport infrastructure — a title the UK can now claim. In fact, this might arguably put the UK among the most advanced nations for drone operations and service readiness.

Altitude Angel drone superhighway UK

What else is Altitude Angel building for the UK drone space?

Altitude Angel largely rose to fame for its efforts  leading a consortium of businesses to build and develop 165 miles (265km) of ‘drone superhighways’ connecting airspace above Reading, Oxford, Milton Keynes, Cambridge, Coventry, and Rugby. That highway is set to roll out over the next two years, and will be a big task on the company’s plate.

And while the combination of the drone superhighway effort with this summer’s two announcements are significant, the company has some other projects in its pipeline. Altitude Angel also quietly announced a program that enables authorities to extend coverage where required, in turn, giving them access to the overall surveillance picture.

Related read: Summer 2023 BVLOS drone dispatches: big approvals for Skydio, Percepto and more

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