BAE begins trials of unmanned aircraft technologies


As part of collaborative efforts across the UK to assess how autonomous air vehicles could be integrated in UK airspace,

Scientists and engineers at BAE Systems have begun another tranche of ground-breaking unmanned aircraft technology trials using a Jetstream 31 as a ‘flying testbed’ that flies itself, with pilots on board that can take control at any time. The trials are being conducted from the company’s military aircraft engineering and manufacturing facility in Warton, Lancashire, UK.

The latest trials are self-funded by BAE Systems at a cost of around £400,000 (US$496,680) and build on the findings of the ASTRAEA (Autonomous Systems Technology Related Airborne Evaluation and Assessment) Research and Development program which ran from 2008-2013.

In a series of 17 flights, BAE Systems engineers aim to prove the capability, maturity and safe operation of autonomous air technologies controlled by a satellite-communications based link. This has the advantage of being globally available already and therefore enables operations without the need for new infrastructure.

Also, being tested are further sensing technology developments, including aircraft and cloud avoidance using only camera input rather than radar. The results of the trials will inform the direction of future unmanned aircraft programs and the suitability of testing unmanned aircraft in the UK. In the near future, these unmanned aircraft technologies may also be brought to market for use in commercial and military aircraft as aids to the existing crew.

The series of test flights involve a team of two onboard engineers who, together with air traffic control experts at NATS, continually assess the performance of the systems on the testbed. Flights last 1.5 hours and fly through non-congested airspace on a route from Warton to Inverness, in Scotland, covering around 300 miles and normally flying at 15,000ft. A pilot and co-pilot are in control for take-off and landing – but once airborne and in controlled airspace the Jetstream flies itself. On the ground a flight test observer and an unmanned air vehicle commander – who is a fully licensed pilot for these trials – monitor the flights via satellite communications.

The testbed contains an aircraft identification antennae which detects other aircraft’s transponder signals as well as a cockpit-mounted camera acting as an ‘electronic eye’. This links to the aircraft’s computer systems and enables the Jetstream to ‘see’ potential hazards even if no signals are being emitted. The ‘electronic eye’ of the Jetstream can also recognize different cloud types and, if needed, plot a course that allows evasive action from challenging weather conditions.

December 19, 2016

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