When I was asked to spin up Flyby Technology to join this battle, I was immensely proud to have been considered. When I sit back and look at our team though, I can see exactly why we were chosen.
In 2018 Flyby Technology was selected by Skylift UAV to provide training for their pilots and managers. Within days I realised that this outfit was somewhat different in their approach. Every time we said something, someone would start writing. Every process or procedure we demonstrated was immediately pounced upon and turned into standard operating procedures.
Personally, I was surprised and delighted that a company would hang on every word. Then I was invited to their HQ in Leicestershire to find out for myself. Skylift UAV Limited were going places. They had an ambition to be the first UK based company to achieve permissions to operate true Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS). I looked at what they were considering and we began a journey that now looks to be on track to achieve their goal. I won’t go into what the commercial opportunity was because we have had to put that on hold. We will get back to that later once the pandemic is over.
I realised that my experience as a drone training provider and my time as a consultant on the design of the new aircraft carriers, was just what this team needed to complete the skill set. And then COVID-19 struck.
The head of Skylift rang me up one day and asked me what I thought of the new restrictions. I said that every change should be looked at as an opportunity. He said that he agreed, and it was his intention to accelerate our efforts and not hide away. And so began a hectic phase of design and requirement writing to solve the seemingly impossible problem of urban BVLOS.
The very next day I had a conversation with Chris Crockford from Electric Aviation. He said, “Jon, how would you like to build a national capability to help support an emerging NHS requirement to use drones to move test kits around?” After I got my breath back, I told him he was trying to put man on the Sun but let’s see where we get to. My next call was to Skylift UAV and off we went.
My view was that the drone didn’t matter, the capability did. Many projects fail because someone invents something and then tries to find a use for it. Having searched for a Commercial Off the Shelf solution and having drawn a blank, we wrote down our assumptions and requirements and then set about building a capability…..not a drone. Over the next few weeks we developed the Common Core System and flight control modes and then looked for an airframe to meet the lift and performance requirements. We ordered our first airframe and set about the prototyping process. Very quickly we narrowed in on Separate Lift and Thrust Vertical Take Off and Landing (SLT VTOL). This gave us pinpoint precision landings with increased range and endurance from having the benefit of conventional wings.
In parallel to this design was the regulatory effort. The CAA issued a document called CAP 1915 which gave guidance to teams like ours, about how to create a system that could obtain regulatory approval. We set to work on an Operating Safety Case, to operate the capability in urban and semi urban areas. This was the putting man on the Sun bit of the endeavour.
The CAA have been magnificent in their support of our application and have given us the opportunity to showcase our true worth in the UK drone industry. This culminated in demonstration flights from Broomfield Hospital in Essex on 15-16 October 2020. The company who drew together the pieces in this jigsaw are Apian, medical entrepreneurs who had the vision and the courage to demand that this happens in the first place.
So, what next? We continue to push the boundaries of the art of the possible; and we fine-tune the training courses for the pilots who will be flying these magnificent machines. These are not robots, that is some distance off. These are Remotely Piloted Vehicles and the skills required to fly them are hard to acquire. Specialist human factors training, and support, is needed both in the design of the interfaces and the teaching of appropriate flight behaviours of the pilots. This is arguably the hard part of the process and must be done to the highest standards.
So, Flyby Technology continues to support the war on COVID-19 in the only way we know how as former forces pilots. We know how to find and track an enemy, only this time the enemy is a virus. We know how to use our resources efficiently to stay more agile than that enemy and bring about change for the greater good. We have been trained in multiple ways to defend our people in times of crisis. We want to use our skills to help everyone be safer and enjoy the freedoms we have always enjoyed.
That may not sound like moving test kits from one location to another, but stay with me here. In the last few weeks another amazing company approached the British Drone Consortium, of which Flyby Technology and Skylift UAV are members, and asked us to develop a new capability to attack the virus itself. To find it and eradicate it in the spaces where we wish to feel safe. To employ the skills we have gained and the knowledge we have learned to remove the space between us and the virus. We believe we have a solution that will be rolled out in the coming days.
So, I don’t have much time for sitting back and feeling proud but in those brief moments between zoom calls or people shouting down a telephone at me for trying to break protocols or diminish established “Best” practice, I do enjoy this moment. Where drones made the change from drones for bad to #Dronesforgood.
We were there.
Jon Parker, FRAeS
Founder of Flyby Technology