Drone flying

A group of UK students may have just solved one of the biggest problems with drones

A group of students from the UK may have solved one of the biggest problems with drones – how to fly them safely near commercial planes and buildings.

Supported by Microsoft’s cloud technology, 14 computing students from Imperial College London proved that more than 1,000 drones could operate in a one square kilometre area with manned air traffic without any accidents.

The popularity of drones, which can cost as little as £14, has surged in recent years among companies and the public. However, following several near-misses with planes near airports, the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) published a Drone Code to offer guidance on the acceptable use of the machines.

With no official system in place to actively prevent drones from flying in certain areas, the students worked with drone service company Altitude Angel to develop an air traffic control system for the small, unmanned aircraft. The project, which lasted several months, was run on Azure, Microsoft’s secure cloud computing platform, and the participants communicated via Skype.

The students created an algorithm that forced to drones to be “repelled” if they were about to occupy the same airspace as another object, in the same way as charged or magnetic particles. If a drone flew too close to a plane, for example, the drone would automatically and suddenly change course. When tested against an Altitude Angel simulation, the students proved that many drones could safely co-exist with manned and unmanned aviation, crossing paths without human intervention.

Researchers hope the findings, which were not tested in a real-world environment, can be used to help regulators create a safer environment for the use of drones.

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“This study has such a profound relevance to the development of the drone industry on a global scale,” said Richard Parker, Founder and Chief Executive of Altitude Angel.

Drones currently do not hold any information about No Fly Zones – such as buildings, airports and military facilities – airborne vehicles with people on board, or other drones. In the UK, the CAA has ruled that drones must not fly higher than 400ft, and stay 150ft away from people and properties.

Despite warnings that endangering an aircraft with a drone could result in a five-year prison sentence, there have been many near-misses over the past few years.

Plane in shadow, taking off, with sun setting in background

There have been many incidents involving drones and commercial aircraft

In July, Gatwick Airport closed a runway and five flights were diverted after a drone was spotted nearby; in April, a drone allegedly flew within a metre of an Airbus A319 as it landed at Liverpool’s John Lennon Airport; while in July last year, a drone reportedly hovered over the right wing of an Airbus 320 as it flew over The Shard in central London.

Emily Byle, a member of Microsoft’s University Engagement Team, said the Imperial College London project was a “perfect example of how the cloud can bring learning to life and help solve some of the key challenges that lay ahead as drone technology becomes more pervasive”.

Altitude Angel said it was “already investigating options for further development of these options”.