AUVSI Special: Europe raises ante on sense and avoid

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The European Defence Agency has allocated a budget of €50 million ($70 million) to a programme aimed at demonstrating a mid-air collision avoidance system that could allow unmanned aircraft to fly in civil airspace. Work is also continuing on the UK's similarly intentioned Astraea project.

A group of 13 European manufacturers and research centres has been awarded contracts to participate in the EDA's four-year MidCAS programme, which is being sponsored by France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Sweden.

The research effort will focus on developing sense-and-avoid capabilities equivalent to those of manned aircraft. Additionally, a new regulatory standard will be developed in collaboration with Eurocontrol, the European Aviation Safety Agency and the European Organisation for Civil Aircraft Equipment, as well as US counterparts.

"We need to take into account what kind of technical system will get an acceptance from the authorities," says Lennart Sindahl, head of the aeronautics division at Saab, which is co-ordinating the team's work under a contract it values at SKr105 million ($13.4 million). Sindahl notes that technical, legal and perceptual issues complicate the mixing of manned and unmanned aircraft, creating a "limiting factor" for the latter.

While Sweden is leading the project, Germany is represented by Diehl BGT Defence, DLR, EADS Deutschland and ESG. Italian participants include Finmeccanica subsidiaries Alenia Aeronautica and Galileo Avionica, as well as CIRA, Selex Communications and Selex Sistemi Integrati. The team is completed by France's Sagem Défense Sécurité and Thales Systèmes Aéroportés and Spain's Indra Sistemas

"We'll use some of the knowledge we have learned from the Neuron programme," says Sindahl, referencing a Dassault-led, six-nation combat air vehicle programme in which Sweden has a 25% stake. With Neuron, he recalls, work was divided in large packages based on partners' competencies and capabilities.

MidCAS will start with an architecture design phase, says Lindahl. At subsequent stages there will be simulations, test flights using manned aircraft and, ultimately, a live demonstration of an unmanned aircraft that will be equipped with a sense-and-avoid system.

Meanwhile, UK industry is persevering with the Autonomous Systems Technology Related Airborne Evaluation and Assessment (Astraea) project, despite delays to government funding.

"The government is still pursuing business cases to establish their support," says Nigel Mills, a technical director at Qinetiq. "Some of the regional development agencies are presenting the cases to their boardsand we're obviously awaiting the outcome of that."

Qinetiq is joined in the Astraea effort by AOS, BAE Systems, Cobham, EADS UK, Rolls-Royce and Thales UK. The first phase of the project concluded in 2008 with a simulated unmanned air vehicle flight through non-segregated UK airspace.

The second phase, now under way, covers testing of sense-and-avoid technologies on a manned surrogate aircraft, plus what Mills terms a "virtual certification".

The original Astraea schedule envisaged a UAV flight demonstration in non-segregated airspace by 2012. "I think it's fair to say that the progress is not as great as we had expected if we had got the full government support, so that will require some timing changes," says Mills.