NATS teams up with aviation startup to improve drone safety

Drone flying over a rural setting with birds on the horizon

National Air Traffic Services (NATS), which develops traffic control systems, has teamed up with aviation tech startup Altitude Angel to develop a system to monitor drones.

The two companies have formed a strategic partnership to explore ways that technology can be used to ensure that drones and manned aircraft can operate in British skies safely.

Over the next few years, the companies will create a string of traffic management tools that aim to ensure that drones - or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) - do not pose a danger to conventional aircraft, marketing them at air traffic control units.

The announcement comes as government, safety and aviation officials continue to warn about the dangers posed by drones when they get out of control.

It was reported in January that a drone came within five feet of an Airbus A321 passenger jet as it arrived at Heathrow Airport. The pilot said he could see the drone from the cockpit window.

NATS claimed that more than half of the reports it receives from airports involve drones. The firm said it will work with Altitude Angel to "drive the integration of drone flight and operational data" to improve safety.

By using the platform, NATS said aviation officials will be able to increase their situational awareness. It will also allow air traffic controllers to engage with drone operators.

The platform will manage data such as the operator's aircraft, qualifications and mission, with NATS suggesting it could perform tasks like granting access to lower level airspace.

David Harrison, director of safety at the company, said the benefits offered by drone technology can only be realised if sufficient safeguards are put in place.

"It is vital that the UK puts in place the right infrastructure to enable this country to be at the forefront of this exciting industry whilst protecting the safety of conventional aviation," he said.

"The increasing popularity of commercial drone operations and the growing number of drone-related incidents makes it essential that we take steps now to help make this happen."

Richard Parker, founder and CEO of Altitude Angel, explained that its software will be used to offer the "level of safety and accuracy needed to enable regulators ... to feel confident" about drone operations.

He added: "This partnership with NATS signals that innovative, global ANSPs recognise and desire to work with the best technology providers in the sector, and the importance for ANSPs to be involved in the emergence of UTM capabilities. We believe that partnerships like this are the future for driving innovation while safeguarding the skies."

The news comes shortly after Vodafone announced plans to track and intercept dangerous drones with a system based on 4G.

Nicholas Fearn is a freelance technology journalist and copywriter from the Welsh valleys. His work has appeared in publications such as the FT, the Independent, the Daily Telegraph, the Next Web, T3, Android Central, Computer Weekly, and many others. He also happens to be a diehard Mariah Carey fan. You can follow Nicholas on Twitter.