Skip to main content

Taking flight: Tech Leaders Come Together to Develop the Future of UK Aviation

Nine UK organisations have today announced The Airspace of the Future (AoF) Consortium, which comprises Thales, Cranfield University, Cranfield Airport Operations, Inmarsat, Altitude Angel, Ocado Group, Blue Bear, Satellite Applications Catapult, and Connected Places Catapult. The group, which will work to integrate drone services within the wider UK transport ecosystem, has been formed in response to UK Research and Innovation’s (UKRI) Future Flight Challenge (FFC). 

The FFC supports the development of new technologies in the UK, including freight-carrying drones, urban air vehicles, and hybrid-electric regional aircraft. It is funded by £125 million from the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund, which is, in turn, expected to be matched by up to £175 million from industry. Through advances in electric and autonomous flight technology, it will increase mobility and reduce road congestion, improve connectivity, scale up UK manufacturing opportunities, and help reduce the environmental impact of aviation across the globe. 

Realising the potential of drones

The AoF project will pool extensive expertise and experience across the UK to ensure routine, operational drone services can be carried out safely. The group will work to integrate quieter, more efficient, and less polluting aircraft within the rest of the transport infrastructure, ensuring aircraft can fly to and from a cost-effective network of small operating bases. 

The group will also develop the supporting ground infrastructure, regulation and control systems required to use these new aircraft practically and safely, whilst the value of a mixed-use airspace will be demonstrated through innovative simulation and real-world applications.  

Alex Cresswell, CEO of Thales in the UK commented: 

Today, Thales air traffic management systems control two-thirds of the world’s manned airspace, enabling two in three aeroplanes to take off or land safely. The opportunity to take this knowledge and experience into the fledgling Unmanned Traffic Management market is extremely exciting and will help revolutionise the sector.

“We are pleased to be leading the Airspace of the Future Consortium, which will continue to drive innovation in the booming UTM market by applying new technologies to develop support ground infrastructure and air control systems. By utilising expertise from some of the UK’s most pioneering technology and transport organisations, the consortium will help deliver new, more environmentally conscious ways of providing air services for tasks such as inspection, surveying, and the delivery of goods by drones. We are excited for the Consortium to be part of the UK Government’s ambition to lead from the front on the world stage to tackle the climate crisis. Ahead of the COP26 conference in November, we look forward to showing how the UK as a science superpower is supporting these efforts.”

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 third revolution in aviation.”

– ENDS –

Notes to Editors

About Thales

Thales (Euronext Paris: HO) is a global high technology leader investing in digital and “deep tech” innovations – connectivity, big data, artificial intelligence, cybersecurity and quantum technology – to build a future we can all trust, which is vital to the development of our societies. The company provides solutions, services and products that help its customers – businesses, organisations and states – in the defence, aeronautics, space, transportation and digital identity and security markets to fulfil their critical missions, by placing humans at the heart of the decision-making process.

With 83,000 employees in 68 countries, Thales generated sales of €19 billion in 2019 (on a basis including Gemalto over 12 months). Leveraging its expertise, Thales’ venture into the UK’s Unmanned Traffic Management market will support the country in being at the forefront of the adoption of drone and autonomous transport technologies. This move builds upon Thales’ active involvement in supporting technology collaboration in the UK – from delivering ventilators to the NHS as part of Ventilator Challenge UK, through to partnering with industry specialists and SMEs to introduce new solutions, such as use of drones to deliver medical supplies.

Thales’ technology and initiatives will play a pivotal role making aerospace more innovative, sustainable and secure as unmanned and autonomous technology transform our lives and the way we do business. Recent achievements in the sector include launching SOARIZON®, a digital management tool democratising unmanned flight; helping found the  Digital Aviation Research and Technology Centre (DARTeC); and launching of the ‘National Beyond visual line of sight Experimentation Centre’ (NBEC), an experimental ‘air corridor’ in which drones and unmanned aircraft will be able to fly in the same airspace as manned aircraft.

About Inmarsat

Anthony Spouncer, Senior Director, UAVs & UTM, Inmarsat Aviation said: “Inmarsat is delighted to be part of this pioneering project to revolutionise commercial drone operations in the UK. With our state-of-the-art global satellite network and 30 years’ experience in keeping aircraft safe in the skies, our services will deliver the vital Beyond Visual Line of Sight capabilities required to revolutionise the way people, goods, and services are transported in the UK. We look forward to working with our partners to help increase mobility and reduce the environmental impact of aviation across the UK.”

Inmarsat is the world leader in global, mobile satellite communications. It owns and operates the world’s most diverse global portfolio of mobile telecommunications satellite networks, and holds a multi-layered, global spectrum portfolio, covering L-band, Ka-band and S-band, enabling unparalleled breadth and diversity in the solutions it provides. Inmarsat’s long-established global distribution network includes not only the world’s leading channel partners but also its own strong direct retail capabilities, enabling end to end customer service assurance. The company has an unrivalled track record of operating the world’s most reliable global mobile satellite telecommunications networks, sustaining business and mission critical safety & operational applications for more than 40 years. It is also a major driving force behind technological innovation in mobile satellite communications, sustaining its leadership through a substantial investment and a powerful network of technology and manufacturing partners. Inmarsat operates across a diversified portfolio of sectors with the financial resources to fund its business strategy and holds leading positions in the Maritime, Government, Aviation and Enterprise satcoms markets, operating consistently as a trusted, responsive and high-quality partner to its customers across the globe.

For further information, follow us: Twitter | LinkedIn | Facebook | YouTube | Instagram.

About Altitude Angel

Richard Ellis, Altitude Angel, Chief Business Officer commented: “The Future Flight Challenge will enable UK businesses to demonstrate their world-leading technology in across the unmanned aerial ecosystem. The potential of drones and unmanned vehicles is immense, with new and innovative use cases being presented on an almost daily basis. With our partners in Future Flight, we can bring about real and fundamental change in the way goods and services are delivered and presented not just in the UK, but throughout the world.”

Altitude Angel is the world’s leading provider of UTM (Unmanned Traffic Management) software, enabling those planning to operate, or develop UTM/U-Space solutions, to quickly integrate robust data and services with minimum effort. From a consistent, well-documented and standards-based platform, drone manufacturers such as DJI and cutting-edge software developers around the world use our Developer Platform to obtain rich, relevant and local geofencing data, exchange and share flight plans, de-conflict their own flights in real-time and interface with national flight authorisation systems. A growing portfolio of enhanced capabilities help our customers to comply with current and future regulations and interface with changing national systems with only minimal effort. Altitude Angel’s first party solutions also power some of the world’s leading ANSPs, aviation authorities and Enterprises, including LVNL (Netherlands) and Avinor (Norway), empowering them with new capabilities to safely manage and integrate drone traffic into national operations.

Today, Altitude Angel’s market-defining technology is providing a critical, enabling service on which the future of UTM, especially in controlled airspace, will be built across the globe. By unlocking the potential of drones and helping national aviation authorities, ANSPs, developers and enterprise organisations, Altitude Angel is establishing new services to support the growth in the drone industry. Altitude Angel was founded by Richard Parker in 2014 and is headquartered in Reading, UK. Altitude Angel’s developer platform is open and available to all here

About Connected Places Catapult

Mark Westwood, Chief Technology Officer at Connected Places Catapult said: “The Future Flight Challenge provides a fantastic opportunity to promote UK industry’s position as a world leader in aviation technology. Connected Places Catapult are excited to be working with the Airspace of the Future consortium, comprising leading UK academic and industry partners.  Together we will tackle the challenges within the unmanned aviation ecosystem and develop a blueprint for future airspace and the supporting digital and physical infrastructure required to safely integrated drone and electric aircraft operations, boosting UK industrial capability within this valuable market sector.”

Connected Places Catapult harnesses UK innovation to accelerate the adoption of new ideas and technologies to help create connected places for a more productive and greener future.
We operate at the intersection between public and private sectors and between local government and transport authorities.  
Our focus is on connecting businesses to cutting-edge research and technologies in order to spark new possibilities and accelerate the creation of innovative products and services which will deliver improvements to the way we live, work, play and travel — and grow the UK economy in the process. 
For more information visit 

About Cranfield University

Professor Antonios Tsourdos, Head of the Autonomous and Cyber-Physical Systems Centre at Cranfield University said: “We’re delighted to be part of the Airspace of the Future Consortium, working with our partners to lead the integration of drone and unmanned vehicle services within the wider UK transport ecosystem. Our responses to the Future Flight Challenge are harnessing the potential of electric and autonomous flight technology to transform air transport services in a safe and environmentally friendly way. Cranfield’s global research airport provides a unique environment to develop and test the airspace management technologies, supporting ground infrastructure and aircraft of the future.”

Cranfield is a specialist postgraduate university that is a global leader for education and transformational research in technology and management.

Cranfield is the number one university in Europe for aerospace. We are one of the few universities in the world to have its own airport. Our history and heritage in aircraft research and design over the last 70 years is extending into the future with new capabilities in aircraft electrification, unmanned aerial vehicle technology and urban mobility.

As the UK's most business-engaged University, we have long-term relationships and close commercial partnerships with many companies in the sector including Airbus, BAE Systems, Boeing and Rolls-Royce.
Our education, research and consultancy is enhanced by our world-class facilities including the National Flying Laboratory Centre – a unique national asset which provides a hands-on, flying experience – along with flight deck simulators and industrial-scale gas turbine engine test facilities used for performance and diagnostic studies. The Aerospace Integration Research Centre, a £35 million innovative centre built in partnership with Airbus and Rolls-Royce, fosters collaboration between industry and academia, and a new £65 million Digital Aviation Research and Technology Centre is also being built at Cranfield to spearhead the UK’s research into digital aviation technology.

Our global research airport offers a unique environment for transformational research. Interconnectivity between our facilities and across academic disciplines is enabling us to rethink the airports, airlines, airspace management and aircraft of the future in a holistic way. Barclay’s first Eagle Lab dedicated to aviation technology and supporting start-ups and SMEs opened on our campus in 2019. 

The National Beyond visual line of sight Experimentation Centre – created with partners Blue Bear, Thales and Vodafone – provides a safe, managed environment for drone and unmanned aircraft experimentation.

Cranfield also has a long history in space systems, having undertaken space studies since the 1960s.

Notable Cranfield alumni include Warren East, CEO of Rolls-Royce plc and Ralph Hooper, who attended the College of Aeronautics at Cranfield in 1946 and went on to become one of the UK’s most important post-war aircraft designers, creating the Hawker Harrier jump jet.  

About Satellite Applications Catapult

Paul Febvre, Chief Technology Officer at the Satellite Applications Catapult said: “From safe routing and accurate positioning to reliable worldwide and on-board communications, satellite services have been, and will continue to be, instrumental in ensuring air transport is safe and as green as possible. The future of advanced aviation systems will include a revolution in logistics and advanced air mobility with the exploitation of autonomous systems such as drones. Innovations like this will rely on new satellite services to provide low-cost solutions for highly reliable monitoring, positioning and communications systems, and we’re looking forward to driving these developments.”

The Satellite Applications Catapult is an independent innovation and technology company, created by Innovate UK to drive economic growth through the exploitation of space. We work with businesses of all sizes to realise their potential from space infrastructure and its applications. Based in Harwell, Oxfordshire, the Catapult was established in May 2013 as one of a network of centres to accelerate the take-up of emerging technologies and drive economic impact for the UK. We are a not-for-profit research organisation which is registered as a private company limited by guarantee and controlled by its Board. See for more information.

About Blue Bear

Gavin Goudie, Blue Bear, Operations Director said: “The Airspace of the Future consortium is an exciting opportunity to work together with partners who bring unique expertise to the challenge developing for routine operational drone services. Our activities to date with the NBEC form a key component of the project and our position at the forefront of unmanned system development, modelling and simulation and our extensive understanding of regulatory aspects will be leveraged to ensure that the outputs can be applied both in the UK and adopted worldwide.’

Blue Bear are pioneers of autonomy and unmanned systems; evolving unmanned concepts, regardless of size and complexity, at an unmatched pace. Blue Bear delivers efficient solutions, professional services and commercial results, supporting both military and civil markets worldwide, with agility, passion and innovation. We are renowned for innovation and rapid technology integration and maturation of ’best of breed’ UK technology.

Blue Bear are one of the oldest unmanned systems companies in the UK. We have been working with autonomy and unmanned systems for over 20 years. On our journey we have had many UK and international ‘firsts’, and pride ourselves in being at the forefront of unmanned systems and autonomy research and development.

About Ocado Group

Alex Harvey, Chief of Advanced Technology at Ocado Group said: "Ocado Group is excited to be part of Airspace of the Future and the long term opportunities afforded by autonomous and safe drone technology. This strong consortium will progress many aspects of the operational ecosystem of autonomous drones in mixed airspace, with a focus on efficiency and safety. We will support the technological and business innovation by building on our experience in AI, digital twins, robotics, optimisation and smart scalable autonomy."

Ocado Group is a UK based technology company admitted to trading on the London Stock Exchange (Ticker OCDO). It provides end-to-end online grocery fulfilment solutions to some of the world’s largest grocery retailers and holds a 50% of Ocado Retail Ltd in the UK in a Joint Venture with Marks & Spencer. Ocado has spent two decades innovating for grocery online, investing in a wide technology estate that includes robotics, AI & machine learning, simulation, forecasting, and edge intelligence.  

Adrian Rondel, UK Media Relations
+44 (0)7971 414052