Trial flights of `unmanned` aircraft begin in UK

A plane that can be flown without a pilot is being tested in the UK ahead of its maiden flight later this year.

Updated: Jun 19, 2012, 20:45 PM IST

Melbourne: A plane that can be flown without a pilot is being tested in the UK ahead of its maiden flight later this year.
The plane, a BAE Systems Jetstream aircraft that is called The Flying Test Bed, is being put through its paces in a series of at least 20 flights over the Irish Sea and through UK airspace.

Although it will be pilot-free during the tests, there will be people on board who will be able to take the controls if the need arises.

The aim of the trials is to demonstrate to regulators such as the Civil Air Authority and air traffic control that such aircraft also known as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), will be able to be used safely in UK airspace, the Daily Telegraph reported.

The tests are a part of a long-term research project that is called Astraea - a name which stands for Autonomous Systems Technology Related Airborne Evaluation and Assessment.

This month’s trials will include “the world’s first use of autonomous, vision-based weather-avoidance routing and the first UK surrogate flight of a fully functional visual sense-and-avoid system which includes collision avoidance tests using a second aircraft,” Astraea said in a statement.

The man responsible for the 62-million-pound project is Lambert Dopping-Hepenstal, BAE Systems’ engineering director.

He said that there is potentially a large market for civil unmanned aircraft that can undertake tasks either too dull or too dangerous on which to risk lives.

“It would have been useful with the volcanic ash cloud, for instance, when we had no way of actually knowing what was happening,” Dopping-Hepenstal told Sky News Online.

He said that the project involves seven major UK companies and more than 70 smaller companies and universities.

Regulators such as the Civil Aviation Authority and air traffic controllers are very much a part of the project, too, as safety is key.

If all goes well, he imagines that there could be limited UAV flights within three or four years in areas that are just off the coast or at sea while they gained confidence.

As for pilotless passenger planes, he does not expect that to happen for some time yet - if ever.