Isla Mayor, Spain serves as a testing ground for drone technology

Commercial drones (remote-controlled unmanned aircraft systems) are too small to be tracked with radar systems and pose a serious risk to pilots. Not only can they cause accidents with aircraft, but they can also be used for a crime-related activity like drug smuggling or airport trespassing. Skies may soon be safer, however, thanks to a world-first Radio Positioning System RPS) for drones, allowing air traffic control to track drones in real time. Recently unveiled in a trial in Isla Mayor, a town in the province of Seville, Spain, this IoT-based tracking technology may be the key to developing new pan-European rules to regulate the operation of drones. Let’s take a look at the technology underway and how skies across Europe may soon be safer. - Bruno De Man


Safer skies

By 2025, the Single European Sky Air Traffic Management Research (SESAR) project predicts that drones will fly 250 million hours per year over some of the European Union’s most densely populated regions—seven times more than the combined average flying time of commercial passenger jets. Cities are looking for ways to crack down on drones flying near prisons and airports after a number of near-misses, with one drone passing by the wingtip of a 156-passenger plane as it landed in Liverpool last spring. In addition to issues with aircraft, drones have been reported attempting to smuggle drugs and mobile phones into prisons like Pentonville Prison in London.

Working with European regulars, telecommunications company Vodafone has developed the first RPS for authorized bodies like air traffic control to track drones in real-time, with up to a 50-meter accuracy. The system works with a 4G network SIM card that makes previously invisible drones now visible on air traffic control systems, with the power to make a drone land or return to its operator if it enters unauthorized territory like airports and prisons. Vodafone has also combined the RPS with Artificial Intelligence algorithms so that a large number of drones can be remotely tracked and controlled. 

Isla Mayor served as the testing ground for 2 kg X-UAV drone with a 1.3-metre wingspan, which followed a 32-kilometer course around town recording HD video and flight data in real time. According to Vodafone, the RPS location data is harder to hack than GPS location data and “the data connection used to control the drone offers the operator significant advantages over current drone radio control protocols, including greater resilience and over-the-horizon real-time feedback.”

If this technology is approved, it would help push forward the goals of the European Aviation Safety Association (EASA) as it develops rules regulating the operation of drones. As for citizens, safety is one key aspect, but so is the improvement of delivery drones, as companies like Amazon have shown the speed at which they can deliver goods to a consumer, with a trial in Cambridge clocking in at under 30 minutes once an order was placed. This type of technology would also help significantly with traffic congestion, reducing the need for large delivery vehicles on the road—and the carbon footprint that comes along with them.