A twin-turboprop BAe Jetstream research aircraft has completed a 500nm (925km) flight through UK airspace under the command of a ground-based pilot and the control of UK air navigation service provider NATS. Advanced sensors and on-board robotic systems were employed to control the aircraft once in the air.

The flight is one of several recent technology demonstrations conducted under the Autonomous Systems Technology Related Airborne Evaluation & Assessment (ASTRAEA), a UK research programme testing the management of civilian unmanned aircraft in common-use airspace. Others include: a pilot simultaneously co-ordinating two small unmanned aircraft in a simulated search and rescue mission; a team of specially equipped vehicles replicating the demands of a secure communications network while driving through mountainous terrain in Wales; work to develop an automatic in-flight refuelling system that could allow unmanned aircraft to operate for extended periods; and the conversion of an engine testbed into an intelligent, integrated power systems rig, successfully demonstrating the complete autonomous operation of an unmanned aircraft's propulsion and electrical system from start-up to shutdown, including 'self-healing'.

A key point in programme has been the development of a detect and avoid (DAA) capability for UAVs, able to comply with separation and collision avoidance requirements just as a manned aircraft can. These tests, the culmination of seven years' research, are intended to help British aerospace companies compete in the civilian unmanned aircraft market.

ASTRAEA was created in 2006 to enable UAVs to be integrated safely into common-use airspace.

A consortium of seven major companies led the £62m ($95 million) project: AOS, BAE Systems, Cassidian, Cobham, Qinetiq, Rolls-Royce and Thales. The UK government, through the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, has provided grant support. To date more than 100 companies and universities have contributed to the programme.

Source: Flight International