Many countries around the world feature impressive drone “hubs” – focal points for the design, testing and deployment of UAVs in a variety of niches, from cargo delivery to conservation. But few drone hubs are as impressive as the one located at the University of Southampton in the United Kingdom, home to the CASCADE EPSRC grant consortium which includes the universities of Bristol, Cranfield, Imperial and Manchester.
Southampton was the first university in the UK to receive an exemption from the British Civil Aviation Authority to fly a heavy cargo drone (weighing 45 lbs and above). It was also one of the first universities granted authority to fly drones on a BVLOS (Beyond Visual Line of Sight) basis.
Southampton’s drones, which launch from 100 separate platforms, have flown missions across the globe – in Antarctica, the Amazon, the Stratosphere and over active volcanoes in Guatemala as well in Europe. One of its flagship drones, the twin-engine Windracers ULTRA, is currently being used to deliver mail between Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly as part of the British Royal Mail test flight campaign. The campaign is a key part of Project Skyway, the UK’s planned 145-mile drone corridor operating across central England and extending to remote coastal areas.
Southampton’s participation in Project Skyway – one of just a handful of drone “superhighways” currently under construction worldwide – places it on the cutting edge of UAV industry development worldwide. Its sterling reputation for technological design and testing is one reason Amazon, which has experienced difficulty getting drone retail deliveries off the ground in the United States, has decided to locate its first overseas base in Southampton where the company already houses one of its 30 UK parcel distribution centers. Under the proposed plan, which is still in development, Amazon will deliver small parcels to tens of thousands of residents across the Southampton region, using its MK30 all-weather multicopter UAV that the company touts as its latest most advanced drone prototype.
The University meanwhile, is forging ahead with several new cutting edge projects in the environmental conservation field. Last month, Southampton researchers landed a drone equipped with special sensors on top of a glacier in Iceland, a pioneering effort that promises to help measure the impact of global warming and climate change.
“These sensors are lightweight enough to be delivered by drone to give us access to places which are usually unreachable manually,” says Professor Kirk Martinez, from the University of Southampton team. Kirk says the technology employed is the first of its kind to examine the precise movement of glaciers. “We have already begun receiving data daily which shows changes in the glacier’s behavior and its fluctuations in velocity,” he notes.
Another area of burgeoning interest is wildlife monitoring. Southampton researchers began drone trials in 2021 with UAVs outfitted with high-powered zoom and thermal imaging cameras and were especially concerned to determine the best altitude at which to approach the task to minimize disruption of animal movements, including mating and reproductive behavior. When some of the caged big cats seemed to notice the drones, the team immediately grounded the aircraft and adapted their strategy.
“The greatest surprise from the trials is the degree of image clarity we can obtain from drones hovering at high altitudes to develop body condition scoring and other indications of animal health, as well as identifying individuals, which allows us to track them,” says Dr. Phillip Riordan, who helps supervise the research.
Conventional monitoring methods conducted by field researchers usually involve the use of trail cameras and selective animal tagging which only produce rough estimates of numbers and types of wildlife, are conducted periodically and may miss important shifts in behavior patterns. These methods are also costly and time-consuming. Drones can perform much the same research on a continuous basis more quickly as well as more accurately.
“Using UAV technology opens up a whole new area of learning about and understanding about some of these populations living out in remote areas far from people and probably in ways we don’t even know about yet,” Riordan says.
Riordan’s researchers have assembled a team of experts from various disciplines to respond to projects generated by governments and non-profit wildlife agencies worldwide. Some initial projects conducted in Tunisia and Kazakhstan in 2021 have already produced some promising results, he says.