Public meeting on uncrewed aircraft trial

From Jersey Airport
6th October 2022

The first in a series of public engagement sessions has been held for Islanders to find out more about a trial of uncrewed aircraft in Jersey, which could bring huge benefits to the Channel Islands. Attendees heard how the trial could lead to drones being used to improve connectivity between the islands, deliver critical medical supplies, or assist with Search and Rescue and Fisheries patrols. It would also support moves towards a more sustainable air transport system.

Volant Autonomy,  who specialise in guidance software for autonomous aircraft, are the lead partners in the Agile Integrated Airspace System programme (ALIAS). They were in the Island for the engagement session and were joined by local project partner Ports of Jersey. The session was facilitated by Digital Jersey.

ALIAS programme

The ALIAS programme is a two year £3.7m Innovate UK funded project, which will culminate in the series of demonstration flights using crewed and uncrewed aircraft in and around Jersey in early 2024.

Uncrewed aircraft are already being used in limited trials in the UK, and hundreds of different platforms are being developed, but apart from NASA, the ALIAS programme is the only trial programme in the world that is developing an integrated system to manage the aircraft and air traffic control elements, using ACAS (Aircraft Collision Avoidance System) Xr standards for air taxis and other autonomous aircraft.

Ports of Jersey

Jersey Airport Director, Robin MacRae, explained why Ports of Jersey became involved in the project: “Being at the cutting edge of technology and innovation is something that’s not new to us. We were the first in Europe to get regulatory approval to operate a digital air traffic control tower, and we are currently collaborating with Blue Islands and Universal Hydrogen on a project to trial hydrogen-powered flights, which could come into operation as early as 2025.

“We saw ALIAS as a great opportunity, not just for Ports, but for the Channel Islands. It brings endless opportunities, like the ability to move essential medical supplies, and to bolster our Search and Rescue capability along with the potential to provide air taxi services within the Channel Islands. The way that Volant Autonomy are integrating data from uncrewed aircraft into a crewed aircraft system is revolutionary.

“The other really important factor is sustainability and the drive towards the decarbonisation of aviation. This is not just an aspiration for us. We want, and need, to move on this quickly, so any opportunity to work with partners heading in the same direction as us, we’ll take it.”

Aviation is one of the industries with the biggest human-caused climate impact, as it’s fallen behind other sectors in developing alternatives. In addition, industry analysts predict that by 2040 there will be a global shortage of around 600,000 pilots. This will be exacerbated by the deployment of more than 400,000 air taxis and millions of logistical uncrewed aircraft operating worldwide. This increased demand for autonomous guidance software in the future requires highly developed safety systems and sustainable technology, and the ALIAS programme will be an important step towards that goal.

Volant Autonomy

Dr Anthony Lawrenson, Chief Commercial officer at Volant Autonomy, was keen to address any safety concerns expressed by the audience: “The standards and the certification procedures that we are undergoing are identical and, in some ways, exceed the requirements of current airspace. It’s not just about achieving regulatory standards, there are obvious concerns from the public and it’s important that we’re not just being safe but being seen to be safe. So, there are two elements we’re very aware of. One is talking and liaising very closely with the regulator on safety standards and the second is through engagement with the public. We need to understand the concerns Islanders might have and how we can mitigate and avoid them, while also demonstrating some of the benefits the technology can bring.”

Dr Lawrenson said they’d chosen Jersey to hold the trials, for a variety of reasons: “Jersey has a very progressive approach to new technologies, not just in the air traffic control management, but also more widely. As soon as Digital Jersey was aware that we were looking to trial new technologies, we got tremendous support and advice. Ports of Jersey have been fantastic, they’re well recognised as a very competent and capable professional entity in the air traffic control world, but also one that isn’t afraid to start looking at next generation technologies and how we can effectively and safely implement those.

“We also thought that as Jersey is an island with associated connectivity issues, we could provide a system that offered search and rescue, fisheries protection, critical infrastructure delivery and critical medical supplies. Jersey is also in a particular position in terms of the regulatory perspective. It has to satisfy a number of stakeholders. EASA the European regulator is the overreaching regulatory authority for the air navigation service provider (ANSP) but Jersey’s Director of Civil Aviation also plays an active role in maintaining air traffic control standards. Having that combination of air traffic control regulators means that we must develop a truly international solution.”

Digital Jersey

The audience at the engagement session asked a variety of questions, including those relating to safety, wildlife and the environment, privacy and regulation. Digital Jersey CEO, Tony Moretta was at the public briefing, held at the Digital Jersey Hub. He said the session had gone down well with those who attended: “A lot of people didn’t really understand what the project was about. It’s not focused on future drone activity such as Amazon deliveries. This is not drones dropping out of the sky over our heads. I think they also now understand that if this works, there is a huge potential for improving connectivity and I don’t mean passengers initially, but things like medical supplies and all sorts of other things.

“During Covid we one of our biggest challenges was how to get our swabs to labs in the UK. The Isle of Wight innovated and used drones for chemotherapy deliveries, and this was something that had this technology been more advanced, we could have looked at.”

 About the Jersey trial

  • Jersey Air Traffic Control manage approx. 8,500km2 of air space and will use just a small section, approximately 60km2 in which to run the trials.
  • The test area hasn’t yet been decided but will be an area of low traffic density, probably around half a mile offshore, and avoid nature reserves.
  • The drones will fly below 3,000ft, which is well underneath commercial aircraft flight paths, and will be the height that these would probably operate at in the future.
  • The only cameras on board the aircraft will be to film the trial and the aircraft in the offshore trial area. No images of Islanders will be taken and collated.
  • The helicopter will operate exclusively from the airport adhering to all local noise regulations. Data will be gathered to determine if there is likely to be any impact on wildlife.
  • The trial is set to take place in March and May 2024. Prior to coming to the Island, all safety planning and regulatory approval will have been completed.

Current drone trials in the UK

  • The Isle of Wight used drones to bring chemotherapy and prescription drugs over to patients during the pandemic so that people didn’t have to travel to the mainland for treatment.
  • HM Coastguard has been trialling unmanned aircraft in search and rescue missions.
  • Royal Mail is partnering with Windracers to trial and eventually deploy a fleet of un-crewed drones that can deliver mail and parcels to the Shetland Isles and other remote island communities.

AgiLe Integrated Airspace System (ALIAS) brings together nine highly motivated technology companies to show a scalable and cohesive airspace system for the future. This system will incorporate drones, air taxis and piloted aircraft working in unison to deliver economic and societal benefit for the UK and the Channel Islands.

Jersey Airport