Pathfinder explores national route to UAV approval

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Cranfield Aerospace has launched a project to certificate a small unmanned air vehicle by working with the UK Civil Aviation Authority to extend its manned aircraft design organisation approval to unmanned aircraft.

“We are trying to be the first in the UK to get our approvals extended to UAV systems,” says business development director Prof Ian Poll, who believes there will be no civil market until UAVs are certificated to file and fly like manned aircraft.

Cranfield’s Pathfinder project exploits the fact that European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) rules permit approval of aircraft under 150kg (330lb) at national discretion. The company has applied to the CAA for certification of a UAV weighing less than 150kg. “There is a legal framework, the CAA acknowledges this. We have paid our money and they have to do it,” says Poll, adding that the UK regulator has a “positive attitude” towards the project.

The first step is to extend Cranfield’s existing manned aircraft design organisation approval to unmanned aircraft systems, including the ground control station. “We will put the simplest system through to test every element of the certification process while making it as risk-free as possible,” says Poll.

The plan is to put a small, low-cost and low-risk vehicle through certification using a spiral development approach. This would begin with the UAV flying at Cranfield under local air traffic control. “We would then fly off and back, and then take off from Cranfield and land at Cambridge in broad daylight. This will open up airspace to autonomous vehicles,” says Poll.

The Pathfinder UAV will build on Cranfield’s work for the UK Ministry of Defence on the Observer small UAV and half-scale Min-O. Observer demonstrated “deskilled” operation of a UAV that was unstable in all three axes, making it insensitive to gusts and allowing use of non-stabilised cameras. A generic autonomous FCS and desktop GCS based on Observer technology are key elements of the Pathfinder project.

Once the UAV is approved by the CAA, Cranfield’s plan includes offering certificated subsystems like the FCS and GCS for use in other programmes. The vehicle could also find a ready market, with coverage of the 2012 Olympics expected to generate commercial demand for UAVs able to file and fly in UK airspace. “A 150kg vehicle can do a good job,” says Poll.