Tomorrow's skies, today Integrating drones into everyday, unsegregated airspace around a major international airport.

For the first time in the UK, Operation Zenith, an ambitious drone demonstration held in November 2018 at Manchester Airport, proved it is possible for drones to be flown safely alongside manned aircraft in controlled airspace.

The success of the operation depended on months of hard work, careful planning and to-the-second coordination between NATS drones experts and air traffic controllers as well as more than 25 partners ranging from tech companies such as Altitude Angel, specialist drone manufacturers, commercial drone operators, the emergency services – and of course, at the heart of all the action, Manchester Airport itself.

For Operation Zenith to be deemed a success, it was essential that Manchester's skies remained absolutely safe throughout the drone demonstrations.

We staged Operation Zenith to show how, given the right regulatory environment, drones – or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles – can be flown safely alongside manned aircraft in controlled airspace.

Our aim was to showcase existing procedures and technologies that, under the right strictly-controlled circumstances, are capable of enabling the growth of the commercial drone industry, a fledgling industry that has a great deal to offer UK plc.

Conservative estimates put its future commercial benefits at billions of pounds in the UK alone, while the contribution drones could make to society, through their many applications across the National Health Service and the emergency services for example, is virtually incalculable.

Operation Zenith was an outstanding success in bringing together drones and traditional aviation and pointing the way towards a future in which manned and unmanned aircraft can coexist safely in controlled airspace. We demonstrated our commitment to creating a foundation service that will ensure the safe and efficient use of our skies."

Alastair Muir, NATS Safety Director

Our vision for the future includes a core air traffic management infrastructure that is designed to accommodate manned and unmanned aircraft in integrated airspace, increasing overall situational awareness and thereby enhancing safety.

On the day, the Operation Zenith drones safely and successfully carried out a number of on-airfield and near-airport tasks without endangering or disrupting airport operations.

Throughout the demonstration, all the drone flights were overseen by NATS air traffic controllers at Manchester Airport, who communicated with the drone operators via Altitude Angel’s GuardianUTM Airspace Management Operating System.

The eight carefully-planned scenarios were designed to showcase how it is possible to unlock the enormous social and economic benefit of drones while protecting today’s manned aviation...

On-airfield delivery

The on-airfield delivery scenario featured an on-airfield drone flight that crossed active traffic paths to deliver equipment having gained electronic flight approval from air traffic control (ATC).

This scenario was designed to demonstrate the safe use of unmanned air vehicles to deliver parts or equipment without causing disruption in a busy, complex and dynamic airfield environment.

Operation Zenith demonstrated the end-to-end process, including defining workflows for pre-approved operations, on-demand initiation, ATC approval and providing situational awareness.

Runway threshold inspection

This scenario featured a drone operator carrying out a remote inspection of the airfield runway threshold.

Linear infrastructure inspection – beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS)

The linear infrastructure inspection (BVLOS) scenario featured a drone flight to carry out a railway track inspection under BVLOS conditions within the Manchester Airport controlled zone (CTR).

This scenario showcased a successful, safe drone flight following an effective flight planning and approval process designed to demonstrate ATC situational awareness, and de-confliction with other aircraft.

Atmospheric survey – within visual line of sight (VLOS)

In this scenario it was vital that the crew had visibility of any factor that may affect or impede the flight. Such dynamic and fluid conditions need to be communicated to the drone pilot in sufficient time to mitigate any potential risks caused if the drone remains.

Through a series of events we showed how GuardianUTM O/S and ATC procedures can forewarn an operator of a developing situation and suggest risk mitigations.

Commercial VLOS Operation

The commercial user within VLOS scenario featured a commercial user flying a drone under VLOS conditions within Manchester Airport’s controlled zone (CTR). This scenario aimed to show how a user is able to use an app like Drone Assist to check air and ground hazards and use its ‘fly now’ function to allow other airspace users and an airport of their activities.

Site survey – within VLOS

The site survey within VLOS scenario featured an FRZ-approved drone flight undertake a site survey under VLOS conditions within Manchester Airport’s flight restricted zone (FRZ).


The safeguarding scenario featured the detection of unauthorised drones as they entered a pre-identified section of airspace to test Operation Zenith’s safeguarding solution.

This scenario was designed to demonstrate how a safeguarding solution can be effectively integrated into a common platform to ATC and other organisations to enhance the visibility of potential hazards whilst not restricting approved flights.

Airspace management

Operation Zenith was designed to demonstrate the value of providing a complete, composite view of the airspace using a range of ATM and UTM sensory sources including radar, safeguarding, hook-on electronic conspicuity, and ground control station/autopilot connectivity.

This scenario was designed to demonstrate that an airspace management tooling platform can successfully invoke an airspace restriction in a defined area and automatically disseminate actions to all active and affected unmanned traffic.

Operation Zenith was an exciting operational day for us at NATS – not only because it was such an ambitious project to fly drones safely alongside manned aircraft close to a busy airport, but also because it was the first opportunity for us to use the Permission to fly Commercial Operations (PfCO) qualification that we achieved last year.

The Operation Zenith demonstration was presented by an aviation industry collaboration led by NATS, global unmanned traffic management (UTM) aviation technology company Altitude Angel, and Manchester Airport, the third-busiest airport in the UK. It was a real first-of-its-kind achievement, only made possible by the close cooperation of so many stakeholders working together.

With the number of drone-related airspace incidents on the rise, it’s essential that we take steps now to create a safe environment for UAVs to be integrated with manned aircraft into redesigned airspace that can cope with the increasing demands of modern aviation in our busy skies.

Report Abuse

If you feel that this video content violates the Adobe Terms of Use, you may report this content by filling out this quick form.

To report a copyright violation, please follow the DMCA section in the Terms of Use.