Oban drone hub takes major step forward

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Plans for a drones’ hub to service Scotland’s islands with unmanned flights have taken a major step forward with the investment of new UK Government funds in the project.

The hub at Oban Airport will be a high-tech base for electrically-powered drones – transporting medicines, biological samples and cargo between the Hebrides and the mainland. It will operate beside a world-leading training facility to be built nearby.

The government is investing £170,000 from the Community Renewal Fund to develop the business case for the West Coast Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) Innovation Logistics Hub and a drone-flying academy beside it.

The cash, which is part of the UK Government’s £1.7 billion investment in levelling up projects in Scotland, will bring jobs and investment to the area.

For the first time an artist’s impression of the hub has been made available.

More details of the project and its vision to maximise the potential of drones being used to transport supplies, undertake green research and boost commercial enterprises, can also be revealed today.

Argyll and Bute council is working in partnership with Skyports, the leading drone-landing infrastructure design and delivery company, to develop plans.

The hub will build on a Skyports initiative which used drones to fly thousands of medical materials, weighing up to 6kg each, between NHS facilities on the islands over a three-month period last year, saving over 12,000 hours waiting time.

Royal Mail is also interested in UAVs as part of its service delivery and has undertaken trials with Skyports from Oban out to the island of Mull.

Another application being explored is the use of drones to inspect and maintain offshore wind farms.

UK Government Minister for Scotland Iain Stewart said: ‘The potential of this innovative project is hugely exciting. Drones are playing an increasingly important role in everyday life, no more so than in Argyll and Bute where pioneering drone usage is taking place.

‘The UK Government has invested £170,000 in the hub as part of our £1.7 billion drive to level up in Scotland. I look forward to it progressing and welcome the economic, well-being and societal benefits it will bring to people in the area.’

Alex Brown, director of drone services, Skyports, said: ‘In 2021 we transported Covid-19 tests, pathology samples and medicine up to 50 miles between NHS medical facilities in the Argyll & Bute region of Scotland – saving the NHS over 12,000 hours of waiting time from their supply chain.

‘Alongside the flight trials, we have been working with Oban Airport to undertaken technical due diligence on how a drone innovation hub could be incorporated into the airport that would support permanent drone operations to service the highlands and islands which will create skilled employment and investment in the area and improve mobility and services to rural communities.

‘We’re incredibly excited about this project and look forward to working closely with Argyll & Bute Council and the Argyll & Bute Health and Social Care Partnership to make Argyll & Bute the leading region in the UK for Advanced Air Mobility.’

The plans also include working with the Oban-based Scottish Association for Marine Science (SAMS), one of Europe’s leading marine science research organisations with skills in UAV technology.

The hub will work in tandem with SAMS and Skyports’ proposal for Europe’s first all-weather drone-training academy.

The national indoor test facility for UAV will have the capability for aircraft testing, pilot testing, pilot and flight crew training.

Uniquely, the academy, which will provide an indoor testing facility to train the drone pilots of tomorrow, will be protected from the weather but the roof will also be “radiotransparent”.

Radiotransparency is an essential property which enables drones being flown indoors to “see” the GPS, satellite communications and beacons they require to operate properly.

The academy will enable unmanned aircraft to be tested and their pilots trained all year – whatever the weather – enabling scientists, researchers and commercial enterprises to benefit from a multi-billion-pound drone industry.

‘This building will be a one-off. We don’t think that a facility such as this exists anywhere else in the world,” said Dr Phil Anderson of SAMS who has pioneered the use of small robotic aircraft to monitor the polar ice cap.

‘Being able to train people in the winter and having the facilities at Oban Airport will boost jobs in the community, develop drone technology and help save the planet.’

SAMS is working with the European Space Agency on using short-wave infrared cameras to detect marine plastics from the sky. The academy would enable the expensive equipment to be tested indoors on drones before being launched into space.

Similarly, the academy would make it easier to test the sophisticated cameras and drone kit which SAMS will use to monitor harmful sea algae which can affect the seaweed harvest and other aquaculture enterprises.

SAMS has also received more than £400,000 through the UK Government’s Community Renewal Fund to create a Seaweed Academy.

Another application is likely to be using drone-borne sensors to predict plant disease and drought by measuring the sunlight reflected from vegetation.

A study by PwC has forecast that the drone industry could be worth £42 billion to the UK by 2030.

Oban airport is an ideal location because it has the potential for a 3.5 hectare business park to be developed. Having council owned land available for purchase or rent will allow the business park to grow into a drone incubator for all drone related companies.

Argyll and Bute Council has the most inhabited islands of any Scottish Local Authority – 23 – making it the perfect site for a west coast logistics UAV hub.

Pic caption: Oban Airport & Skyports vision of what a drone innovation hub could look like.