The world was watching as Great Britain became the first nation to start vaccinating its population in December, after the Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine was approved in record-time.
When the government decided to release considerable funds early on in this pandemic, and fast-track the regulatory processes necessary for British industry to come together, it encouraged innovation to help combat the spread of the virus. The NHS identified that it needed help developing a Test and Trace system, and distribution for samples, relevant therapies and pharmaceuticals.
Two companies were chosen to help with the NHS challenge, Skylift UAV and Flyby Technology, both founder members of the British Drone Consortium (BDC). They put in an incredible effort to design and build a national capability using custom-built drones that could distribute NHS supplies, including live COVID-19 samples, safely and efficiently. The time saved would help save lives in the test and trace effort. The NHS is a national treasure and the BDC did not hesitate to abandon other lucrative areas of business to concentrate their effort in the national interest.
Not only would the Test and Trace system be supported, the system and infrastructure they designed would give the NHS a lasting solution to logistics and distribution problems. This would allow critical supplies, such as organs for transplant, to be moved efficiently, very much as the crow flies. It would complement current means of distribution by joining together disconnected ground transportation options. Their custom-designed, innovative aircraft can take off and land without the need for runways, and are flown remotely, beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS), by fully qualified pilots anywhere in the world from their headquarters in Leicester.
BAE Systems, the UK’s largest defence contractor, asked if they could contribute to the BDC’s trials and training programme. They immediately offered the use of their airspace and testing expertise at their home airfield at Warton, Lancashire. The use of BAE Systems knowledge and heritage added to the deep experience and standards-driven training of Flyby Technology, enabled the Skylift UAV team to demonstrate their truly unique solution on a world stage.
The trial specification helped to verify both systems and complex training assumptions. The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) granted permission for these BVLOS trials to take place over urban areas. The flights practised control handover between pilots at Warton and others in Leicestershire, and enabled the validation of unscheduled landing procedures.
“This was a landmark moment in civilian beyond visual line of sight flying, especially as it took place in support of the nation’s response to COVID-19” said Jon Parker, FRAeS, the founder of Flyby Technology, and a training captain with a major airline. He went on to explain “Thanks to the wonderful assistance from BAE Systems, we have now achieved things in a time frame and environment that we could only dream of. The British Drone Consortium, Skylift UAV, Flyby Technology, and indeed the Nation, owe you their gratitude.”
The significance of this partnership is not lost on Captain Parker, who flew BAE’s iconic Sea Harrier on operational missions with the Fleet Air Arm while on exchange with the Royal Navy from the RAF. “British innovation created the Harrier and Sea Harrier which led the way in fighter jet development for years to come. I feel very lucky to be part of this new industry filled with incredible opportunities, because we are leading the field.
In my career so far, I’ve spent 17 years as an airline pilot, and 17 more as a fighter pilot, but I’ve spent more time, close to 25 years, designing or investigating Remotely Piloted Aircraft capabilities. I really hope to be spending many more years in this amazing industry because I cannot wait to see what we can achieve in this country. My vision is for the UK to lead the world in civilian long range drone operations.”
Flyby Technology is offering BVLOS courses starting in 2021 to suitably qualified candidates. They will also be available to furloughed airline pilots and young pilots who are newly qualified in partnership with Skyborne Airline Academy based at Gloucester Airport.
“I wanted to offer something groundbreaking to the British aviation industry. BVLOS represents the future of aviation, and we are pioneers in BVLOS training and expertise. There has never been a better time to become involved in aviation.”