Gary Cutts, challenge director for the Future Flight Challenge at UK Research and Innovation, explores the current trajectory of future flight in the UK and how planning, architecture and construction will need to adapt
For so long, drones, air taxis and all-electric aircraft have occupied the same cultural territory as hoverboards, teleportation devices and warp speed – in other words, science fiction rather than science fact.
More recently, these futuristic flight technologies are hitting the headlines more and more. While the idea of a world where workers commute by on-demand air taxi, and towns and cities of the UK are linked by electric and autonomous flight may seem farfetched, it is actually just around the corner. In fact, for logistics and delivery purposes, it’s already here.
So, how will this new era of aviation impact UK society, and in turn how we design and look to build our towns and cities? And what is the UK doing to integrate this new form of transportation into the existing infrastructure?
How will the benefits of flight change our world?
Whilst some industries are already beginning to experience just a small fraction of the benefits that this new era of aviation has to offer, once established, this technology has the potential to totally revolutionise the way society operates. And, in turn, the shape of our cities.
But how? Just some examples of how drones and AAM vehicles (advanced air mobility or air taxis) will benefit society include:
Improving access to medicines and medical services
Currently, accessing otherwise remote or particularly hard-to-reach locations is a chief advantage of unmanned aircrafts. In the UK, it was recently announced that The University of Southampton and the Isle of Wight NHS Trust has decided to research the benefits of transporting urgent clinical items over the Solent using un-crewed aerial vehicles. It was also lately reported that drones were to be used for the delivery of Covid-19 equipment across the Isles of Scilly.
Both scenarios highlight just how effective all-electric aircraft can be in time-sensitive and critical operations. In the future, we are only set to see this expand. In fact, there are expected to be more than 27,000 drones used in the public, defence, health and education sectors by 2030.
Cutting logistics emissions and supporting sustainability
Transport is the UK’s largest source of emissions, responsible for 27% of its greenhouse gas emissions in 2019. Of this, 55% comes from cars, with the remainder from vans and lorries. These emissions have remained roughly the same for a decade, as greater fuel efficiency has been offset by an increase in miles driven.
Electric and autonomous flight technology to transport people and goods could have an important role to play in decarbonising the UK transport system. Should the infrastructure be correctly adapted to allow seamless integration with other transport systems including road, rail and international flight, it has been predicted that 11,008 drones will be in use in the transport and logistics industries by 2030.
Connecting communities in remote locations
Transport infrastructure doesn’t just connect people and places – it can actually significantly impact the opportunities available to residents of different regions. For those living in more remote postcodes, the current transportation available is often limited, and this can drastically impact education and employment opportunities.
It’s therefore possible that reimagining the future of transport and putting it at the centre of long-term regional development can reshape the prospects of an area, and those living in it. In some parts of the UK, we are already seeing drones being trialled for this exact purpose. As an example, it was only recently announced that Royal Mail is carrying out a two-week trial of scheduled, autonomous postal delivery flights, between Kirkwall and North Ronaldsay in the Orkney Islands. This will help to better connect remote island communities.
If we can continue to invest in this aviation technology, the goal is that more doors will be opened to more people, resulting in a more connected workforce and community.
Adapting existing infrastructure
As mentioned above, many industries are coming to understand the benefits that this technology can offer, but in order for developments to continue, the infrastructure in the UK must be adapted to accommodate the change. Just as trains need stations and cars need roads, drones and advanced air mobility vehicles need carefully mapped flight paths, designated ports, and areas to recharge.
This is a challenge currently being undertaken by UK company, Urban-Air Port. Due to open in November, the company has created the world’s first airport dedicated to electric air-taxis and drones. The transport hub, named Air-One, is based in Coventry and has been designed as a one-stop-shop for drones to either be recharged or loaded with goods before distributing supplies around the city. In the future, Urban-Air Port also aim to use the site to host electric vertical take-off and landing aircraft (eVTOLs), which could shuttle passengers into the city centre and back.
Urban-Air Port has ambitions of installing over 200 zero-emission electric airports globally within the next five years. If achieved, this project could help the UK make significant progress towards a greener and more connected future. Nonetheless, there is still a long way to go and much more to be achieved before reaching the goal of a revolutionised and sustainable era of aviation.
This is just one example of a range of projects being supported by UKRI’s Future Flight Challenge. It focuses on the development of the digital and physical infrastructure, regulation and control systems required to use these new aircraft practically and safely. These new modes of travel will increase mobility, reduce road congestion, improve connectivity, increase UK manufacturing opportunities, and help reduce the environmental impact of air travel. However, we need to know how all of these things can be put into practice in the UK’s cities. That’s why we’re encouraging planners, architects, engineers and operators to plan for the future of flight and get involved.
Apply your creative ideas and skills to the future of aviation by joining the Future Flight Challenge community and shaping how new concept airports will become a reality.