Satellite Firm Works to Fly Delivery Drones Hundreds of Miles


(Bloomberg) -- Inmarsat Group Holdings Ltd. says it’s found a way to safely fly civil drones over long distances, a step that may help pave the way for mass adoption by industries from transportation to energy and infrastructure.

Current rules mean most non-military users have to keep drones where they can see them and can only operate one at a time to avoid collisions. So a race is on to develop a failsafe approach that can satisfy regulators.

Britain’s Civil Aviation Authority has signaled it’s ready to relax the “line-of-sight” and one-user-one-drone rules if someone comes up with a communication system that removes the risk of crashes.

Satellite operator Inmarsat has partnered with drone air-traffic management startup Altitude Angel Ltd. to fit drones with a global back-stop satellite connection when land-based communications aren’t available.

Everyday drone flight beyond a visual line of sight would be “a game changer,” said David Tait, acting head of the CAA’s Innovation Team.

Regulators are moving slowly and cautiously as they come to terms with a surge in the popularity of small, privately-owned drones for leisure and aerial photography. Relatively affordable unmanned devices can be flown for miles by an operator using remote video that shows the equivalent of a plane’s cockpit view -- but this is banned in many countries.

Hundreds of flights were disrupted at London’s Gatwick airport in 2018 after a raid using miniature drones.

London-based Inmarsat’s satellites provide global communications for armed forces, emergency services and ships. As its terrestrial satellite receivers have got smaller and cheaper, that makes it easier to use them on tiny aircraft.

Individual drones are already used for close inspections of hard-to-access infrastructure where the operator is close enough to see them. Altitude Angel founder and Chief Executive Officer Richard Parker said the new system could make inspections of remote and dangerous facilities up to twenty times faster and open up new applications such as the transport of freight between airports.

The ultimate goal is remote, scalable, automated drone fleets which could airlift tonnes of goods between depots and allow farmers to monitor and optimize their crops more easily, he said.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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