The £62m effort is being led by a consortium consisting of autonomous and semi-autonomous systems firm AOS and industry heavyweights BAE Systems, Cassidian, Cobham, QinetiQ, Rolls-Royce and Thales. It hopes that the development of a fixed regulatory framework and safety testing will give UK industry the confidence to further invest in unmanned aircraft.
America hopes to have opened up its airspace for unmanned aircraft by 2015, the consortium have said that 2020 is a realistic date to have the technologies, systems, facilities, procedures and regulations that will allow autonomous vehicles to operate safely and routinely in civil airspace over the UK.
Lambert Dopping-Hepenstal, engineering director at BAE Systems, said that the move would “open up a new market to do things not traditionally done with aircraft.”
Mr Dopping-Hepenstal listed coastal protection and patrol, as well as flight missions in difficult weather that a manned aircraft would be unable to carry out. He noted the potential of unmanned aircraft to carry out search and rescue missions and operate during forest fires, with the added benefit that an unmanned aircraft can fly lower than one that is manned.
However, he noted that there has to become an international standard if the market is to develop further, stating that the lack of confidence in unmanned aircraft is keeping the technology on a lead.
Mr Dopping-Hepenstal said that firms “don’t want to spend money on things that won’t get certified,” stating that a clear framework will allow the technology to take-off and open up a market that has the potential to be worth up to £10bn by the end of the decade.
A BAE Systems Jetstream aircraft, which is testing a number of the technologies, has undertaken 12 flight trials in preparation for the first maiden flight of a surrogate UAV in UK shared airspace later this year. The aircraft will use instrument flight rules, decision-making software that gives allows the aircraft to make antonymous decisions, under air traffic control.
Nick Miller, vice chairman at ASTRAEA (Antonymous Systems Technology Related Airborne Evaluation And Assessment) and business director of UAV systems at Thales, explained that the key for unmanned vehicles was to make autonomous decisions in the same way that a pilot would.
The camera installed at the front of the BAE Systems’ Jetstream aircraft has successfully avoided collision with a test aircraft having come within 1,200ft. The camera can detect other aircraft up to 10km away, whereas the human eye can has a capability of up to 7km.
The ASTRAEA system on-board the Jetstream will be tested in a series of at least 20 flights over the Irish Sea and through UK airspace over the next year.
The ASTRAEA programme is set to end in March 2013, with no continuous programme yet in place.