Cornwall may be best known for pasties, defunct tin mines and the fictional Captain Ross Poldark, but there is more to the English county than meets the eye. And much of that is going on over our heads – literally. 

Open Skies Cornwall is a ten organisation-strong consortium developed to test the next generation of drones, their infrastructure requirements and the technology required by end-users. The project will unlock four Cornish airspace environments, where drones will fly with purpose – from supporting the delivery of everything from medical supplies to parcels. It will implement the DronePrep Drone Delivery Register, to help with planning and building sky highways to connect the UK’s National Health Service (NHS), Royal Mail, maritime and local authority assets to the people of Cornwall.

Open Skies Cornwall Falmouth Harbour

The project used floating drone delivery testbed rigs in strategic, large vessel moorings

A winner in the UK Research and Innovation Future Flight Challenge competition, Open Skies Cornwall has received £2.4m of research and development funding to help it test and consult on different ‘sky highway’ routes before they are fully adopted within the next two years.

Third party organisations interested include the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (Search and Rescue), which has recently commissioned £1bn of funding for the development of its air rescue services over the next ten years, as well as the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) innovation team and Cornish firm WholeShip. Based at Predannack Airfield on the Lizard Peninsula, WholeShip has already opened up an area the size of Luxembourg off the coast of Cornwall, specifically for the development of civilian autonomous drone and air taxi services.

Ship-to-shore flights offer huge potential to add value for Falmouth Harbour’s community, according to DronePrep

Working with end-users

Part-funded by the UK Research and Innovation Future Flight Challenge and delivered by Innovate UK and the Economic and Social Research Council, the project will create four thematic demonstration environments in Cornwall. These will enable end-users, technical specialists, UAS operators, regulators, innovators and academics to test new detect-and-avoid systems and concepts in real-world environments, and seamlessly link end-user-viable drone delivery requirements to end-user supply chain challenges and opportunities. Stakeholders will also be able to explore and test solutions, procedures and concepts to overcome regulatory requirements relating to airspace access (CAA), land access and medical products transit compliance.

The consortium has exclusive demonstration partnerships with Royal Mail, NHS Kernow (the NHS in Cornwall), JHUB-Med (the HQ for medical innovation in UK Defence), Falmouth Harbour, while benefitting from the insights and local knowledge of Cornwall Development Company.

The drones used in the trials were developed by Skyports Drone Services

The drones used in the trials were developed by Skyports Drone Services

Open Skies Cornwall will work with each partner to examine the potential of drones. In the case of the Royal Mail, for instance, it will look into how drones could be integrated into the company’s supply chain network, ground assets and customers to provide a lean, quick, cost effective and robust connection to remote Cornish communities. The consortium will explore and demonstrate how drones can be incorporated into the NHS Kernow logistics supply chain to provide new options for time-critical medical delivery and the optimisation of transport and pathology lab assets.

The project team will work with Falmouth Harbour to integrate autonomous drone solutions and enabling infrastructure to complement and supplement maritime end-user requirements in relation to data capture, ship-to-shore delivery and remote healthcare/telemedicine/flying defibrillator applications.

A first for the UK

In January 2024, a test flight was carried out in Falmouth’s newly designed Falmouth Harbour Maritime Drone Testbed Airspace Environment.

A continuation of trials and demonstrations that took place between the Isles of Scilly and the UK mainland in 2021, the flights are part of a series of trials testing Falmouth Harbour’s ground infrastructure, flying capabilities and airspace for future maritime-focused drone activities, such as emergency medical, food bunkering or maintenance supplies deliveries.

Crow Creative

Falmouth Harbour was created by an Act of Parliament more than 150 years ago


Following the conclusion of the trials, Open Skies Cornwall aims to fly sorties for real-world use-cases to large civilian vessels at strategic moorings in the harbour and to intercept vessels up to 50 miles offshore in the Atlantic Ocean/Celtic Sea, providing additional resilience connectivity to maritime workforces at sea, the consortium said.

The trials identified four landing locations in Falmouth Harbour and tested key infrastructure in the harbour itself, as well as trialling new sensors that monitor aircraft movements and back-end software updates. New landing locations and flying routes along the Cornish coast towards Truro were also explored, thanks to facilitation work along the upper reaches of the Fal Estuary by Port of Truro and Cornwall Council.

Gareth Whatmore, CEO of DronePrep and project lead for Open Skies Cornwall, said: “We’re delighted to have completed a successful round of ship-to-shore integration trials, which included a series of landings on our project’s floating drone delivery testbed rig in strategic, large vessel moorings. Ship-to-shore flights offer huge potential to add value for Falmouth Harbour’s community but it’s important that we work closely with all stakeholders to ensure those innovations operate safely and integrate smoothly with existing infrastructure.

“For example, providing maritime drone services on a regular basis means identifying suitable take-off and landing locations that will work for the harbour during the busiest times of the year and including this information in the Drone Delivery Register. By identifying the best solutions for this environment, we can also prepare for long-distance, Atlantic capability within airspace that is integrated for both drones and conventional aircraft. This is currently being worked up via the Sky-Highways CONOPS in partnership with the Civil Aviation Authority.

DronePrep, Skyports and Falmouth Harbour

Representatives of DronePrep, Skyports and Falmouth Harbour

Putting software to the test

Open Skies Cornwall consortium member Neuron Innovations used the trial to test sensors and software applications. Niall Greenwood, chief operating officer at Neuron, said: “As part of our safety procedures, the drones flew over a ground-based sensor to monitor airspace for the presence of other aircraft. During the trials, we were able to test Jet Vision sensors – a new, lower-cost, higher-quality tool – to capture automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast(ADS-B) transmissions that monitor aircraft movements.

“We were also able to trial upgrades to our back-end software, which allowed the drone operator, Skyports Drone Services, to connect directly and simply with available sensors, provide coverage mapping and deliver reductions in message latency and costs.

“Our goal is to develop a highly-scalable, self-financing and regulatory-compliant model that can be applied to a variety of use cases and we’re pleased that these trials have successfully demonstrated the clear benefits of our solution.”

The trials identified four landing locations in Falmouth Harbour

The trials identified four landing locations in Falmouth Harbour

The Drone Delivery Register

DronePrep, which is leading the project, is the developer of the Drone Delivery Register. The online resource will enable companies and organisations such as the Royal Mail, the NHS and Cornwall Council, as well as Falmouth Harbour users, vessel owners, landowners and businesses, to register take-off and landing locations for future drone deliveries. Landowners can also share permission to access land and assets, allowing the project partners to test low-level flight corridors, the aforementioned sky highways.

Gareth Whatmore said: “This demonstration flight within the Falmouth Harbour testbed is the first of many pioneering flights in our unique airspace environments; over the next two years we will be using the intelligence gathered from the community via the Drone Delivery Register to plan for meaningful drone deliveries to support maritime, essential healthcare logistics and parcel delivery. I am looking forward to how our technology partners can work with communities to create sky highways to better connect the region and create a logistics network fit for the 21st century.”