The Knowledge Transfer Network (KTN) has launched an interactive map for its Future Flight Challenge project in the UK.
The aim of the Future Flight map is to create a central national resource that connects technology innovators that are working in the fields of new or more sustainable aerospace and aviation systems – areas supported by the Industrial Strategy and its 2021 replacement, the Plan for Growth.
These include electric aeroplanes, autonomy, new control technologies, unified air traffic management systems, and urban mobility platforms, such as drones/unmanned aerial vehicles and flying taxis.
KTN is the networking group that works with UK Research & Investment (UKRI, parent of Innovate UK) and other organisations to connect tech entrepreneurs and investors.
In the smart, connected cities of the future – and in the UK’s rural communities – a variety of aviation technologies are likely to have a significant impact on our lives, not just in obvious areas such as personal transport, logistics, and last-mile deliveries, but also in others, such as agriculture, food production, healthcare, and critical infrastructure maintenance.
Examples might include the use of sensor-packed drones to monitor crops and livestock, deliver medicines or blood supplies, or patrol transport networks and inspect buildings or offshore wind farms. Drones also have promising applications in blue-light, security, or search and rescue operations.
The environmental and sustainability advantages of new electric and autonomous aviation systems could be significant, by helping to reduce emissions from aircraft overall and by reducing the need for road traffic, especially in the urban last mile.
Supporting this burgeoning market could also help to create thousands of new ventures and jobs.
That said, there are concerns about noise nuisance, quality of life, safety, and security, particularly if the skies above our cities become full of autonomous or remotely piloted rotorcraft. Public acceptance of these issues will be critical to their commercial success.
As well as noise and risk to life and limb, thousands of commercially operated drones would need to be safely integrated with current air traffic control systems and be able to avoid colliding with other drones and with traditional aircraft, not to mention buildings and power lines.
A recent report by UKRI and the Future Flight Challenge focused on just six of the many potential use cases of new aviation systems. These are: drones for powerline inspection; drones for cargo and mail delivery; last-mile delivery of essential medicines by drone; sub-regional air taxis – eg from York to Preston; rural air taxi transport (from village to village); and urban transportation.
Among the predicted benefits, the analysis showed an overall net cost saving of 20-48 percent across these use-cases, safer working conditions in the maintenance sector, and a reduction in journey times of up to 37 percent by the introduction of rural air taxis.
However, connecting the many different sources of expertise in new aviation technology is vital for this nascent economy to succeed, which is where KTN comes in.
The interactive map provides insights into the different capabilities that exist in the UK marketplace, not just in designing and building new technologies, but also in supporting the integration of new aircraft with the digital and physical infrastructures necessary for future flight.
And of course, it is also an opportunity for start-ups and other ventures to, quite literally, put themselves on the map, start conversations, and build new alliances.
The Future Flight programme is funded by £125 million from the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund (ISCF), which is expected to be matched by up to £175 million from industry.
As ever with ISCF programmes, the UK’s ambitions and homegrown innovators are impressive, and policymakers have identified the right areas for support, but the funding available from the government is modest compared with the size of the opportunity.