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Air operations, Expert view

Cirium joins Heathrow-led project to optimize drone usage at airports

June 24, 2021

Cirium joins leading consortium, steered by Heathrow, in the Innovate UK’s Future of Flight Challenge for the autonomous use of drones in UK airspace.

Heathrow International Airport has successfully won a research project bid via the UK Research and Innovation’s (UKRI) Future Flight Challenge, known as Fly2Plan.

The Fly2plan project is aimed at learning how new technologies such as cloud infrastructure and blockchain can use Heathrow’s data more efficiently and unlock opportunities for the use of autonomous drones within UK airspace.

The hub airport is working with a consortium including Cirium, NATS, IBS Software, SITA, Rockport Software, Consortiq, TEKTowr, Altitude Angel, Digital Catapult, Oxford University and Cranfield University.

This presents a great opportunity for Cirium to support new ground-breaking research concepts that have the potential to help reduce carbon emissions, cut operational costs, and improve airport efficiency.

Alex Brooker, senior director strategy at Cirium, shares the latest updates on the project and how Cirium is working with Heathrow to achieve their ambitious plans to decarbonize aviation and boost efficiencies in UK airspace and air mobility.

What is Fly2Plan?

Fly2Plan is one of around 30 projects currently in motion for the UK Government’s Future Flight Challenge—Cirium is also leading a consortium in another one of these projects focused on Unmanned Traffic Management (UTM). More news to come.

It’s a major research project focused on technology solutions for the improvement and optimization of the use of drones, urban air mobility, air traffic management and infrastructure innovation. The Cirium team are excited to take on this challenge as a member of Heathrow’s consortium. The challenge brings together major players in the aviation industry, prestigious academic institutions and forward thinking SMEs who helped Heathrow secure the winning bid.

How is it funded?

All Future Flight Challenge projects, including Fly2Plan are commissioned via the government’s funding body UKRI, via Innovate UK.

The challenge is funded through £125 million of government grants. These grants are awarded to the most forward-thinking projects that deliver on three objectives, including the safeguarding of the UK’s advantage in research and development (R&D) in aviation, the reduction of aviation emissions and the creation of economic opportunities from new forms of air mobility.

Innovate UK provides grants for up to 50% of the money required to fund winning bids for research into new ground-breaking concepts that could help to reduce emissions, cut costs and make air travel to and from Heathrow more efficient. Consortium members contribute the remaining 50%— a commitment we’re pleased to make as we work together to champion the recovery of the aviation industry in the wake of COVID-19.

How did Cirium become involved?

The Heathrow team specifically invited us to join the consortium, having identified us as the leading player in the UK and internationally who would be best placed to provide cloud infrastructure and data solutions. For example, the only way that UTM can operate safely is by ensuring there are agreed standards and ways of working between stakeholders, facilitating collaboration.

Data plays an integral role in this, and we are leaders in the modern implementation of these standards. Heathrow recognized the unique data and expertise we can bring to their team—to back up research and transform ideas into real action. We’re providing our data feeds and expertise and we’re very honored to work with the consortium, which is made up of digital-first leaders in aviation.

How is Cirium supporting the drive to improve sustainability?

Comprehensive and reliable high-quality data holds the key for successful digital transformation across the board—with significant improvements in sustainability as a major objective within this quest. We are developing our data and solutions to help airports and airlines understand how sustainable they are now; identify where and how they can make improvements and be able to measure their progress. We don’t just track engines, we also analyze routes—and optimize 4D trajectories that can be negotiated between stakeholders.

Data informs operations—we’re working to enable the aviation industry to plan routes with minimum environmental impact, but this requires conversations and collaboration.

How is the project progressing?

The project is a 15-month R&D phased project which is scheduled to be completed in early 2022. The project has kicked-off and Cirium is providing access to flight, aeronautical, and aviation data. We are making strong progress in our aim to help understand and realign new ways of data exchange to support UTM. For Phase 3, we hope to be working on live demonstrations of the concepts with the long-term aim of wider adoption across the aviation industry.

What has been the most rewarding aspect for you?

It’s been fantastic to have the opportunity to take a fresh look at how operations should and could work for the better. The current global system has evolved over many years: it’s outdated, and no longer reflects the needs and capabilities of the aviation industry today—and how we know we can shape it for the future.

The onset of UTM is an opportunity to take a fresh look and be revolutionary! And it’s an honor to work with such a forward-thinking team of people—the UK’s top talent. It’s an inspiring collaboration that’s generating fresh thinking from people who come with all the skills and areas of expertise we need to make this happen. 

How will Cirium use this experience to enhance its own solutions?

We will seek to exploit the research as far as possible as it will help inform our own product roadmaps to promote safe UTM in both the UK and globally.

Heathrow is just the start. It will provide what we hope will be a blueprint that can be successfully rolled out to other airports and clients across the aviation industry.

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