The United Kingdom will become the world’s biggest “automated superhighway” for drones before 2024.
The £273m Skyway project will run between Cambridge and Rugby, a distance of 164 miles.
The scheme is due to be announced by Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng today at the Farnborough International Airshow, the first to be held since the pandemic.
Other projects under consideration are the use of drone to deliver post to the Isles of Scilly and medication across remote areas of Scotland.
Mr Kwarteng will say the funding will “help the sector seize on the enormous opportunities for growth that exist as the world transitions to cleaner forms of flight”.
Telecoms giant BT is one of the bodies involved in the project.
Director of Drones at BT, Dave Pankhurst, said Skyway is about scaling up trials that have been taking place around the UK.
He said: “This drone capability has existed for quite some time, but is in its infancy in terms of being actually part of our society and being a usable application.
“So for us, this is about taking a significant step towards that point. It’s going to open up so many opportunities.”
By mid-2024, the airspace above Reading, Oxford, Milton Keynes, Cambridge, Coventry and Rugby.
According to a report on the BBC, a total of £105.5m of the government’s funding will be specifically for projects relating to “integrated aviation systems and new vehicle technologies”, including unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) such as drones.
Chief Operating Officer of aviation company Altitude Angel, Chris Forster, said there were a lot of potential uses for the “superhighway”.
He explained: “Whether it be a business doing logistics, all the way to the police and medical deliveries of vaccines and blood samples, there’s a real demand to have access to this airspace.
“We’ve done a few projects in Africa where the road infrastructure was not good for ground vehicles, and the delivery of vaccines was provided by automated drones.”
The idea is to harness ground-based sensors installed along the highway which provide a real-time view of where drones are in the airspace. The data is analysed by a traffic management system, which guides them along their routes and avoids collisions.
Steve Wright, Associate Professor in aerospace engineering at UWE Bristol, said: “It’s about the first and last bit of the flight,” he said. “The problem is what happens when you’re 10 feet away from people. That’s the bit I spend my time worrying about.
“When it’s up in the air I know it’s stable and it’s not going to hit something.
“People are looking at lowering packages down from the air – in other words you keep the drone well away from people. There’s lots of very bright people out there working on flight plans that deliberately avoid built-up areas.”
Mr Pankhurst said the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) is involved to ensure safety.
He told the BBC: “The way they work as an organisation is very evidence-based,” he said. “Safety is just paramount in this industry, but importantly, nothing happens without the regulator actually signing it off.
“The CAA is part of all of these future flight projects. It is part of all of these activities, validating the progress and making sure they’re safe.”
He said its research showed that people are more likely to accept a drone if they know it is providing an important service.
Cranfield University Senior Lecturer Simon Jude said: “People’s knowledge and attitudes might change if they know what that UAV is being used for.
“If it’s an emergency medical support, you’re probably going to be a lot more accepting of the noise.
“So what happens if you get multiple UAVs, or an agricultural use where you might get a number of drones collecting and saving data all at once?
“I live in a rural location, a very quiet location and it might annoy me more than if you were in a city or an urban landscape where there’s lots of other noise.”