Drone research facility – ‘Omnidrome’
Introduction / summary
The university wishes to develop a drone research facility named ‘Omnidrome’ on the main Egham campus, south of the A30. It will be a functional modular building that will enable academic research in the field of air, land and water-based robotics. It is a showcase facility for university teaching, external engagement and private studies.
The facility would enable the fostering of networks and partnerships to be developed between the university and commercial organisations, local authorities, and emergency service units.
The university has world-class and long-standing reputation in topics such as information/cyber security; however, its ambition to grow leadership in emerging topics is constrained by its lack of research facilities. The development of the drone research facility will provide a step-change in the university’s ability and credibility to carry out drone/robot research.
The drone facility will be positioned to the rear of an existing car park in the north-east corner of the campus. The site is screened to the south by a row of tall Leylandii trees and along the east by a row of broadleaf trees. The site is broadly level, with a fall in levels down into the Victorian Ripley Springs drainage basin beyond the site boundary to the south.
Relevance to the Estate Plan
The university secured outline planning permission for the erection of up to 55,000m2 new academic and operational floorspace and up to 72,128m2 of student accommodation in April 2015. The Omnidrome facility is to be delivered within this floor area threshold.
The 2015 planning permission requires that subsequent detailed submissions for each phase of the development shall include changes to overall parking numbers and details of the management of the car parking spaces. A number of technical impact assessments and statements are also required to be to be submitted with detailed plans, where these are necessary and relevant to the scale of the proposal, to enable the council, as the local planning authority, to make an informed decision.
The 2015 illustrative estate plan showed the redevelopment of the drone site (an existing car park) to accommodate a 700-space multi-storey car park to serve the university campus. This was to be developed alongside a new junction at the Piggery Gate entrance, which would be opened up as one of two primary gateways into and out of the campus.
The university purchased the former Procter & Gamble research facility, known as Rusham Park in 2017. The Rusham Park site included a 408-space decked car park. Planning permission was secured in 2021 for the university to use this car park on the condition that a new campus-wide car parking strategy would be prepared and submitted to the council for approval. The university has since secured planning permission for the principle of redeveloping the Rusham Park site for a student village comprising of up to 1,400 student study bedrooms.
The university intends to start using the Rusham Park decked car park to coincide with the first occupation of students within the village. Subject to securing the required detailed permissions, occupation is expected in the summer of 2026.
The global pandemic has reduced parking demand across the campus and the introduction of new ways of teaching and learning (which includes hybrid working and virtual online teaching programmes) will continue. The Rusham Park car park is expected to serve an important part of the university’s future parking strategy and as such, it no longer expects to deliver a major multi-storey car park within the campus close to Piggery Gate.
The reduced demand for parking and the future availability of the Rusham Park car park is such that the drone facility can be developed on part of an existing car park without causing long term parking problems. The facility itself will not generate car movements, only a small number of deliveries: students and staff using the facility will already be based on campus.
The relationship between the site and the Estate Plan is therefore clear: rather than the need to develop a multi-storey car park, the university can use the area to accommodate an important and cutting-edge research facility. The modest floor area of the facility is well within the floor area thresholds permitted under the 2015 planning permission.
The building will be simple in form and function. It will be a lightweight structure made of modular insulated panels providing a clear span volume of up to 10m clearance to eaves to enable the flying and testing of primarily electric drones and robotic equipment.
The current point of access to the car park from the internal spine road within the campus is retained. The university will be seeking permission to remodel the Piggery Gate entrance soon. This will create an improved direct point of access and egress into the campus. Refuse collection and emergency vehicle access will continue to use the existing campus gates and internal campus service roads.
New hard and soft landscaping is proposed around the building. This will create a welcoming entrance space and compliant maintenance and fire escape routes around the perimeter of the building. Soft landscaping and gravelled zones assist with the surface water drainage for the site.
Where not affected by the new development, the existing car park will be retained, with minor amendments to the car parking spaces to allow for vehicle access to the building. Accessible parking will be retained in the adjacent car park.
The university prepared and distributed a consultation leaflet to relevant properties along Egham Hill, Danehurst Close and Fazehurst Close ahead of the submission of the application. A seven-day period of consultation was held during which two responses were received. The first sought clarity as to whether the drones would be flown inside or outside the building, the second comment related to the timescale provided within which comments were requested. Given the nature of the comments, no refinements were made to the scheme design, and the reserved matters submission was issued to the council on 28 July 2022.
As at September 2022, the council is considering the proposal. A decision is expected within 10 weeks of validation (or by 7 October 2022). However, the council can request an extension of time if required. The council has written to local households, statutory and non-statutory local consultee organisations inviting comments prior to a final decision being made.
Planning application / reserved matters submission
The outline planning permission of April 2015 established the principle, subject to appropriate details, the demolition of existing buildings and the erection of new academic and operational buildings up to a maximum net increase of 55,000m2 and up to 71,128m2 of student accommodation across the campus.
Since 2015, the university has secured consent for four new academic buildings: the Emily Wilding Davison (Library) Building, the Shilling Building, the Enterprise Centre and the Open Performance Theatre building. Only the first two buildings have been constructed and as such a significant residual floor area capacity remains under the thresholds set out in the 2015 outline planning permission. At only c800m2 in size, the Omnidrome research facility will not result in any floor area threshold being breached. As such, a reserved matters submission was issued to the council in line with the principles and thresholds set out in the outline permission.
The university considered there is an urgent need to develop a capability in cutting-edge drone research. The building’s panels will be constructed off-site and will be installed on-site around a steel frame. This significantly reduces the complexity and timeframe to erect the facility.
Subject to securing the necessary consent, the university anticipate foundation works to start in Autumn 2022 and the facility to be ready for use by May 2023.
Link with other estate projects and plans
(See “Relevance to the Estate Plan” above)
Piggery Gate (The drone facility is not dependent upon the works to Piggery Gate, but the two are in close proximity and construction planning will be required to avoid operational conflicts).