UK Drones Pathfinders Programme announces new pathfinder focused on detecting marine activity near nuclear power stations

On 22nd July 2020, the UK Drones Pathfinder Programme announced that they would be adding a new pathfinder programme project which focussed on detecting marine activity at an early stage, particularly when the activity is near nuclear power stations. The revolutionary project will utilise Unmanned Aerial Systems (UASs) to identify marine ingress in a variety of coastal industries, particularly near nuclear power stations. The concern is that such marine ingress poses specific practical, technological and regulatory challenges due to the sensitive nature of nuclear power stations, making the pathfinder project particularly difficult. The pathfinder is a collaboration between EDF Energy and Cranfield University, which will strive to establish whether Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) operations are feasible for early detection of marine life such as kelp and jellyfish in the vicinity of nuclear power stations. The project will be carried out in line with the regulatory and safety framework for the use of UASs in close proximity to nuclear power plants. The idea is that capturing data using drones on a regular basis could act as part of an early warning system to project electricity generation as well as the environment. The warning system utilised by drone data will enable water-cooling mechanisms to be adjusted.

Dr Monica Rivas Casado, A Cranfield University Senior Lecturer in Integrated Environmental Dr Monica Rivas Casado, said:

“Marine ingress can be an issue for nuclear power plants as it can affect the intake of water required for operations. The successful operation of BVLOS will enable us to detect threats from marine ingress at an earlier stage and to prevent disruption to the power plant. The development of BVLOS is an important step in enhancing the capabilities of environmental monitoring using drones for a varied range of applications. We are extremely grateful to be part of the Drone Pathfinder Programme.”

In this article you will learn;

  • What is the Pathfinder Program?
  • Hows does the Pathfinder Program Work?
  • Who is involved in the Program?
  • What challenges does the Program face?
  • How drones can be used against marine ingress
  • Using drones for environmental protection

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What is the UK Drones Pathfinder Programme and how does it work?

The UK Drones Pathfinder Programme aims to achieve the routine use of drones in the UK. The programme has been running for a number of years, with many projects up and running successfully. The programme is part of a drive to put the UK at the forefront of drone innovation, regulation and technology and to overcome many of the challenges innovators, government and this in the drone industry face. Overall, the UK Drones Pathfinder Programme takes a phased approach to drone innovation, technology, testing and application, and seeks to identify and overcome the commercial, operational and technical barriers to creating additional Beyond Visual Line of Sight services in the UK and beyond. The UK Drones Pathfinder Programme receives funding from the Department for Transport (DfT) and is managed by the Connected Places Catapult. The project is also supported by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) and the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA).

The programme is part of a broader partnership program between both the public and private sector in the UK. The aim is to fully integrate drones into UK airspace.

What are the biggest challenges the programme must overcome?

One of the biggest challenges to drone integration is the public opinion of drone use. There is public concern around both privacy and safety, which is why using drones near nuclear power stations could be a challenging project. However, it is essential to develop safety cases to improve public trust in drones and ensure a smooth transition to greater drone use. The recently announced program could act as an excellent case study and demonstration of practical drone use.

What are the technical issues the project faces?

Similarly, the development of safe, precise long-distance flight Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) is incredibly challenging, particularly in the context of marine life and nuclear power stations. To ensure drone safety, it is essential that innovators develop and improve low-altitude air traffic management generally, and work together to establish reliable networks of communication.

What impact does a lack of collaboration between innovators have on drone innovation?

Generally, there is a significant lack of collaboration between innovators, industry, regulators and the public sector when it comes to drone innovation. Parties fail to share information or centralise research which can make drone innovation slower. However, the UK Drones Pathfinders Programme encourages involvement from a broad variety of sources and organisations encouraging greater collaboration.

The scope of the UK Drones Pathfinders Programme was reviewed and updated in 2018, under the supervision of the Department for Transport (DfT), the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) and the Connected Places Catapult.

What is the vision of the UK Pathfinders Project?

The project is made up of a variety of programmes designed to deliver rapid improvement in drone technology and regulation over the course of the next 10 years. The overarching vision is to allow the public sector and industry to make the most of areas such as infrastructure inspections, geo-mapping, logistics and surveying.

The idea behind the programme is to allow innovators in the industry to engage with regulators and government bodies at an early stage. This level of integration will allow parties to explore solutions together, enable greater information sharing and provide a platform for overcoming technical, commercial and operational challenges. One of the biggest barries to advancing drone technology has always been a lack of collaboration between innovators: this programme aims to break down barriers and make collaboration straightforward. The increase in collaboration and engagement is designed to greatly increase the understanding of the regulatory environment and allow for suggestions for adaptation to regulations. It is anticipated that optimisation of drone use in both the public and private sector with provide for efficiency savings and allowing organisations to carry out high-risk activities more often, but in a safer way. The programme will continue to add new projects that explore solutions for BVLOS operations and applications.

Which parties are involved in the pathfinder project?

The project is primarily a collaboration between EDF Energy (one of the UK’s largest energy companies) and Cranfield University. The project will be delivered alongside the Smith Institute, SME Caintech and The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC).

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles Operations Manager at Caintech, Craig McDonald, said:

“We are delighted to be working with Cranfield University and EDF Energy on this project. Having worked on this project alongside Cranfield University from the beginning, it is great to see how it has developed. The implementation of BVLOS will greatly improve the area in which we can cover which in turn will mean we can detect marine ingress earlier.”

The use of Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) to detect marine ingress near nuclear power stations: How does the project work?

The project is of course complicated. However, this section provides a general overview of the key aims and work to be carried out as part of the project. Generally, the project aims to create a body of work that will allow innovators to make progress in early detection of marine ingress, primarily in the vicinity of power stations but also in other applications.

To carry out the project, the collaborators will use mathematical and statistical techniques to optimise wide-area monitoring protocols. This includes a thorough academic review analysing how effective the use of Extended Visual Line of Sight (EVLOS) / BVLOS operations and the relevant benefits in relation to marine ingress detection. Later in the year, the project will start to conduct BVLOS UAS trials in the vicinity of an EDF nuclear power station with the aim of detecting kelp blooms and jellyfish.

Angus Bloomfield, Marine Biology Consultant at EDF said:

“Any industry on the coast which uses seawater can find its operations complicated when seaweed or jellyfish blooms impact protective systems. They can damage machinery and even stop power generation, which could threaten the stability of the electricity grid. An early warning system involving drones could allow industries in marine environments to act early and avoid the most dramatic effects these events can bring.”

Key project tasks:

Optimising wide-area Unmanned Aircraft System protocols for monitoring by utilising both mathematical and statistical techniques. As described above, a key part of this will mean conducting a thorough academic review concerning what the benefits of using Extended Visual Line of Sight (EVLOS) / Beyond Visual Line of Sight in this particular application. The project will also seek to quantify such benefits within the context of marine ingress detection near nuclear power plants.

The project will also partner Unmanned Aircraft System technology and contemporary approaches to statistical high-resolution image analysis, to create the optimum system for warning and the early detection of marine ingress.

What are the key challenges the project aims to address?

Firstly, the project can help to establish a safety case for Beyond Visual Line of Sight missions in the vicinity of nuclear power stations. Safety cases are essential in improving safety and building trust in the use of drones by both commercial operators and from the public.

The project can also allow for routine Beyond Line of Visual site operations in close proximity to nuclear power stations to obtain Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) approval. This will allow for increased and greater use of drones and opens the door to new applications.

An important part of the project is in quantifying how beneficial the use of drones is in detecting marine ingress. The usefulness of drones in this application must, of course, be weighed against any risks and drawbacks. Gathering data to support drones usefulness will allow the benefits to be quantified.

However, in order to gather data purposefully, the BVLOS flight plan must be optimised; another key challenge of the project.

Finally, the project aims to determine what the limitations are for Beyond Line of Visual Sight UAS uptake in a technological sense. Understanding these limitations can help map out how to overcome them.

Using drones for environmental protection and improved operations

We like to share stories of innovation and drones being used in ways that help the planet. From providing valuable assistance to vulnerable communities, to the high-risk work carried out by drones in terms of mapping problems caused by environmental changes, it is clear that drones can play an integral part in improving the world we live in. The advancement of drone technology and regulation is essential, and projects such as the UK Drones Pathfinders Programme is vital in mapping and understanding the challenges and dangers drones can help us to overcome. Drones also play a crucial role in commercial operations, driving efficiency and profitability. COVID-19 has caused unprecedented difficulty and upheaval for many businesses, but normalising, improving and advancing drone use can help businesses to overcome many of these challenges and drive efficiency savings.

Transport Minister Rachael Maclean MP said:

“This ground-breaking project could mean that our fantastic search and rescue teams, who save lives 24 hours a day, seven days a week, can cover a wider search area, pick up more incidents and tend to these quickly and safely.

“Going beyond search and rescue, the project will also help teams to quickly spot and tackle pollution, protecting our valuable marine environment. This is an exciting project that is supported by our Drones Pathfinder Programme which we are pleased to be funding into 2020/21.”

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