University of Bristol: Smart Internet Lab helps accelerate UK’s capabilities in drone operations

Experts from the University of Bristol are among a UK-wide consortium that is pushing the boundaries of drone development and aviation capabilities.

The consortium of 16 entities, led by specialist drone command and control solution developer,, and including aviation, aerospace and industry giants BAE Systems, NATS and Sellafield, has won a share of £30 million to develop and test a remotely operated drone system for industrial and urban environments.

The futuristic system will enable remote inspection and monitoring of industrial sites such as nuclear, construction and oil and gas, as well as urban sites in the public domain including road and rail and telecoms infrastructure, and live emergency services support.

The system, which uses similar technology to autonomous cars, enables autonomous drones to be flown under tight human supervision by pilots based in a central control room hundreds of miles away. Pilots can precisely execute complex missions remotely – even reactive missions (designed on-the-fly) and close-quarter missions encountering GPS-denial, magnetic interference and degradation and loss of comms.

Congested area operations are very challenging, but the potential reward for unlocking these types of mission in terms of public health and safety, cost efficiency and environmental impact is huge. No single entity could make this happen alone. This consortium of aviation, aerospace, industrial and emergency service giants, together with has joined forces to advance the system and integrate it into the wider aviation ecosystem.

Professor Reza Nejabati, an expert in high performance and autonomous networks from the University of Bristol’s Smart Internet Lab, said: “As a leading research institution in 5G and beyond, we will provide expertise on the design of end-to-end network architecture for the future operation of drones. Our experts will evaluate a combination of multiple 3GPP (4G and 5G), non 3GPP (WiFi), MEC and network slicing technologies in multi-operator settings with private and public operators. We are very well placed to train the next generation of engineers with unique and cross disciplinary skills in integration of telecommunication with drone systems.”

Bristol’s Smart Internet Lab researchers will push the boundaries of telecommunication research and explore how end-to-end network architecture can be utilised to facilitate autonomous operation of future drones.

Professor Dimitra Simeonidou, Director of the Smart Internet Lab, said: “Our pioneering research in future telecommunications is now enabling us to drive digital transformation, using 5G technologies, on a number of sectors, (tourism, manufacturing, logistics, digital creative, utilities etc). We are delighted to contribute to this innovative project and shape the development of autonomous drones.”

The Smart Internet Lab is among a host of technical contributors to the consortium, alongside Vodafone, The Met Office, Flock Cover and UAM Consult Ltd.

The project involves the system being put through a series of tests, increasing in complexity and challenge, with end-client organisations including Atkins; Skanska; Skanska Costain STRABAG working in partnership with HS2; Sellafield; Vodafone; Network Rail; and Lancashire Fire and Rescue Service. During these tests the system will be operated by two of the world’s leading drone service providers, Terra Drone and Sky-Futures or by the in-house drone teams at Sellafield, Network Rail, and Lancashire Fire and Rescue Service.

John McKenna, CEO of said: “The Future Flight Challenge funding will accelerate us towards a future where drones fly autonomously at scale – high up alongside manned aviation and low down inside our industrial sites, suburbs and cities. We are enormously proud to be leading this consortium and to be working with such incredible partners to develop this advanced Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) aviation system. We see huge opportunity across industry and the public domain – and if we succeed, it would be a tremendous honour to support the emergency services.”

Gary Cutts, Future Flight Challenge Director, said: “At this very challenging time for the international aviation industry, it is a great testament to the UK’s drive and ambition that we have had such a strong response to the first funded Future Flight competition. The breadth, quality and creativity of the bids has been exceptional and the economic and social benefits offered are very significant. The projects we are now launching will position the UK strongly to drive the 3rd revolution in aviation.”

Further information is a UK-based Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) pioneer, focussed on developing the leading Enterprise BVLOS Command & Control Solution for drone service providers. is the only entity selected into both the CAA Regulatory Sandbox (one of only ten entities alongside Boeing and Amazon) and the UK Government Drone Pathfinder backed by the Department for Transport, the Department for Business Energy & Industrial Strategy and the CAA.

The consortium is comprised of sixteen companies (including made up of technical contributors, drone service providers and end-clients. The technical contributors are: NATS, Vodafone, BAE Systems, Flock Cover, UAM Consult Ltd and University of Bristol. The drone service providers are Terra Drone and Sky-Futures (two of the world’s leading drone service providers). The end-clients are: Atkins; Skanska; Skanska Costain STRABAG working in partnership with HS2; Sellafield; Vodafone; Network Rail; and Lancashire Fire and Rescue Service.

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The Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund aims to bring together the UK’s world leading research with business to meet the major industrial and societal challenges of our time. The fund was created to provide funding and support to UK businesses and researchers, part of the government’s £4.7 billion increase in research and development over the next 4 years. It was designed to ensure that research and innovation takes centre stage in the Government’s modern Industrial Strategy. It is run by UK Research and Innovation.