£20m from UK Space Agency for drones and other tech to connect remote areas

New government funding for drones and high-altitude aircraft to boost connectivity in hard-to-reach parts of the UK and support emergency services, following new government funding. 

Chloe Smith, the Secretary of State for Science, Innovation and Technology, has announced the biggest investment to date in drones and high-altitude platforms to support the development of future telecoms tech and aerial connectivity projects to provide wireless coverage.

silhouette camera drone flying midair

Photo by Sorasak 

Companies are invited to bid for funding to develop new and innovative aerial tech that will support a range of industries, under one of three themes:  

  • Drones 
  • High-altitude platform stations (HAPS) 
  • High-altitude long endurance (HALE) 

This could include drones delivering medical supplies to hospitals, providing dedicated connectivity for emergency services or bringing internet access to rural areas. It might involve developing connectivity for aerial platforms with hybrid capabilities so that they can seamlessly switch between satellite and terrestrial networks. Another possibility is in traffic management for innovative vehicles such as electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) aircraft – so-called ‘flying taxis’.

The new funding and initiatives will complement efforts such as Project Gigabit, the government’s flagship £5bn programme to enable hard-to-reach communities to access lightning-fast gigabit-capable broadband.  

Technology Secretary Chloe Smith, says: ‘From using drones to quickly get medicines to hospitals, through to boosting mobile network access in remote areas, the benefits of aerial connectivity cut through many aspects of our lives. 

‘The government’s £20m investment will further strengthen the UK’s fast-growing satellite communications industry, which already contributes more than £10bn to our economy and supports over 26,000 jobs. It will improve our health and security, too, and support our plan to level up every part of the UK.’ 

The funding is part of the European Space Agency (ESA) Advanced Research in Telecommunications Services (ARTES) programme. Future telecoms are also one of five critical technologies identified by the government in the UK Science and Technology Framework, and the UK is a leading investor in ARTES, having committed £190m to the programme in November 2022. 

The announcement was made by the Technology Secretary at the opening of the European Space Agency’s new conference centre at the European Centre for Space Applications and Telecommunications (ECSAT), which is part of Harwell Space Cluster, Oxfordshire. This ‘space gateway’ is home to more than 100 space organisations and employs some 1,400 people. It’s hoped that the conference centre will be a rallying point for the UK space community, reinforcing existing ties and fostering new partnerships within Europe and beyond. The UK Space Agency contributed £7m to the project. 

Dr Paul Bate, Chief Executive of the UK Space Agency, says: ‘The new state-of-the art conference centre at ECSAT is a very welcome addition to the world-class science campus at Harwell, offering an attractive base for collaboration and networking between people working in the space sector and beyond. 

‘UK Space Agency funding for the facility demonstrates our ongoing commitment to working closely with the European Space Agency to catalyse investment, deliver new missions and capabilities, and champion space across the UK – showing once again that space is a team sport.’   

Josef Aschbacher, Director-General of ESA, adds: ‘The UK has a strong track record for innovation in telecommunications and we are proud to work with our UK partners to develop innovative technologies that will support industries across the economy by boosting aerial connectivity. 

‘This activity demonstrates the excellent cooperation between the UK and ESA, and is a great example of how the seamless connectivity delivered by space-enabled 5G is set to transform society and industry. 

Chris McLaughlin, Secretary of the HAPS Alliance, says: ‘High-altitude platform stations have the potential to enhance connectivity in remote areas and aid emergency services in natural disasters. The HAPS Alliance applauds the development of innovative aerial services and technologies, such as HAPS-dedicated connectivity for emergency response. 

‘The investment underscores the industry’s commitment to future telecommunications and reinforces partnerships within the space community, driving transformative advancements in aerial connectivity.’ 

In related news:

€2.5m for AI platform that inspects critical assets such as bridges and oil platforms

£18m for development of OxCCU sustainable aviation fuel

Multimillion-pound Project Gigabit contracts in Hampshire, Norfolk and Suffolk


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