The University of Central Lancashire has been awarded £1.8 million by The European Regional Development Fund’s (ERDF) business support programme to test drone technology.
Separately, the university has been awarded £1.4 million by the Lancashire Local Enterprise Partnership to fund its Lancashire Drone Command and Control Centre.
Thanks to this major funding boost, academics from the university will continue partnering with businesses and services to show how the use of drones could help drive business growth and respond to emergencies.
Both projects could create up to 100 highly-skilled jobs, support 265 businesses and result in an uplift of £4.5 million Gross Value Added to the region’s economy.
Commenting on the funding boost, UCLan's professor of aerospace Darren Ansell said: “This is a game-changer for us as the additional investment allows us to scale up our engagement with companies in the region in order to help increase levels of innovation and create new, high level jobs for the future.
"This funding will place UCLan, Preston and the North West at the very heart of this high-growth industry, enabling us to develop world-class expertise, jobs and economic growth for the region.”
Drone testing has already begun in a partnership between The University of Central Lancashire (UCLan), Lancashire Fire and Rescue Service and BAE Systems.
UCLan’s Aerospace Engineering team has rapidly produced and is currently testing a 20kg, fixed wing unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV).
It will be used to help the fire and rescue service to rapidly assess gorse fires in the coming months, helping to prevent spread in remote or inaccessible areas.
Gorse and other wildfires are becoming an increasingly pressing issue in the summer months.
According to European Commission figures, large UK wildfires increased from 79 in 2018 to 137 in 2019.
The new drone will be evaluated this summer and is expected to be fully rolled out by 2022.
Lancashire Fire and Rescue Service has made extensive use of drones in the past few years and last year it pleaded with drone pilots not to fly near ongoing emergency service incidents.
UCLan and the North West have been at the forefront of drone technology and innovation for several years and a Civic Drone Centre was established at UCLan in 2014.
Novel drone solutions have since been discovered at the centre in fields ranging from mountain search and rescue to mine field surveying.
Preston was also selected as a UK test city for drone use as part of the Nesta Flying High Challenge competition in 2018.
Sarah Kemp, Lancashire Local Enterprise Partnership CEO, said: “Here in the North West we have one of the largest clusters of aerospace activity in the world.
"The Lancashire Drone Innovation Zone has the potential to capitalise on this fact by rapidly driving progress in drone use, enabling industry and the public sector to exploit opportunities presented by a fast-growing global drone market.
“Encouraging innovation in new emerging markets in the aerospace sector is a priority for Lancashire and an important part of the county’s response to the UK’s industrial strategy.”
Chief Technologist at BAE Systems Air Sector, Professor Julia Sutcliffe, said that investment in drone technology will be 'critical for the future of UK industry.
"It’s fantastic to see our local university being funded to drive innovative drone research on behalf of the region," she said.
"The blistering pace of technology development is so great that we must always look for ways to collaborate so that we can deliver solutions more quickly.
"This funding allows UCLan to really drive and exploit a North West pool of talent that helps to keep the region at the forefront of aviation.
"We’re proud to support, guide and encourage innovation in this critical and emerging area of autonomous technology.”
A Lancashire Drone Innovation Cluster led by UCLan and supported by BAE Systems, the North West Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre and Lancashire Enterprise Partnership hopes to continue to attract future investment.
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