Skyports putting drones through their paces with challenging testbeds

UK based Skyports have been doing some very interesting work with drones during the Covid period. They held a trail campaign with the UK’s health, service the NHS (National Health Service), in Scotland during some rather testing weather conditions.

Skyports was founded in 2018 by Duncan Walker and Simon Morrish, primarily as an air mobility infrastructure company. They are building infrastructure to support the future air taxi service – think of it as mini airports for electric flying vehicles built within our cities limit’s.

As they developed the company and spoke to potential partners one question they were always asked was, where they working with drones? Well, if the demand is there then why not, and drones became an extension of the business module.

Alex Brown, Head of Operations, joined the company three years ago. His background is in the airline business having worked for Virgin Australia. Aviation has always been a bit of a passion of his but his decision to join a start-up in innovative aviation was out of his need for more of a challenge, there is only so much that can be done in the well-established airline business.

Alex Brown, Head of Operations at Skyports

“I just thought that there was the opportunity here to set up not one but two really innovative transformational ways of moving people and cargo – I’ve got to be involved in that right?”, he says.

“The last three years have been super challenging as it’s a highly regulated space, every operation we do is literally 400 pages of regulatory documents. We’re working with incredibly sophisticated bits of tech and flying in some of the harshest environments so it’s a challenge. But that’s what makes it interesting,” he explains.

They currently have teams involved in polit projects in the UK, Ireland and Singapore supervising the flying of the drones beyond the line of sight.

“We’ve come a long way in a relatively short period of time, particularly when you’re looking at aviation, where things generally take a very long time to do,” he says.

The team completed a project with the UK’s NHS where they used drones to carry samples for testing from the island’s off the West coast of Scotland to the mainland. A very challenging testbed for the drones given the area can throw up some of the harshest of weather conditions.

Getting a large traditional organisation like the NHS to trust you with its patient’s samples can be a challenge in itself. Brown talks us through how it came about.

“We kicked off with a very short piece of work back in early 2020 just as COVID was sort of kicking off. We just did a week of operations between Oban, which is a small town on the west coast of Scotland and the Isle of Mull – that’s a 15km hop. We just did drone delivery flights for a week we didn’t do any proper payloads; it was just to test the feasibility and work with the CAA,” he says.

The CAA is the Civil Aviation Authority which gives them the approvals for drone flights. The test flights went well and proved to the NHS that drone technology could benefit them.

“We moved forward into a three-month, real payloads for real patients, operational day to day – just flying as much as we can,” he says.

As the drones would be carrying human samples for testing Skyports had to first prove themselves.

“We demonstrated that the integrity of the blood is not impacted by the flight, by the temperature and the vibrations associated with putting in the drone,” he says.

“It’s fair enough because they’ve been using vans the whole time that they’ve done this, and they want you to prove that this new way of doing things isn’t going to change the quality of the test or the quality of the conclusions of the treatments that they can provide to people.”

“We did have periods during the NHS operations where it was too windy to fly and that is an area where we need to get better at, as an individual company and as a drone industry. It’s increasing the range of where we can fly with drones because until we can do that, we won’t be able to fly daily throughout the depths of a Scottish winter, which is where we need to get to,” he explains.

Apart from the weather Brown cites the regulations and the technology available to them as other challenges they face as they are developing their offering.

They use drones from Swoop Aero in Australia, who provide the drones and work with them on the requirements they need in a drone to provide the best service they can. Manufacturing their own drones was never an option for Skyports, they are of the mindset to stick to what you know best and use the best partners to provide the rest.

Regulations are a minefield in this area too. The main reason being of course this is a new tech, and they are working from some pretty old aviation documents to create new regulations, much of which simply does not apply to drones.

In one of their latest pilots Skyports is working with Future Mobility Campus Ireland (FMCI) to provide last mile delivery in partnership with FedEx Express.

The campus, which provides future mobility testbed facilities, is based in the west of Ireland in Shannon. The test flights, which began on 4th October, are part of a month-long trial of beyond visual line of sight flights between Shannon Airport and Foynes Port in Limerick City – anticipated to be made in under 13 minutes.

The company also continues to work in the UK with the Royal Mail which is the UK’s national postal service, and they have an ongoing project in Singapore which will see drones bringing cargo from ships still at sea.

“Our other vertical is ship to shore deliveries, oil rig deliveries, wind farm deliveries – it’s higher value maritime deliveries again, which should usually take place with an expensive boat or a helicopter, which we can actually replace with a drone,” he explains.

“We’ve got a team on the ground in Singapore now which is very focused on implementing maritime operations that we hope to be operational in Singapore from December this year,” Brown adds.

Fiona Alston is a freelance journalist based in Ireland covering tech, innovation, start-ups and interesting SMEs. Alston is also passionate about athletics, health and horses having competed in triathlons, equestrian events and horse racing, and her lived experience comes through when covering sports personalities or fitness features. Growing up on the family farm in Scotland, Alston graduated from the University of Sunderland with a BA (Hon.) in Broadcast Journalism, and is frequently published in The Irish Times, The Business Post, RTÉ and 4i Mag.