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UK funding crisis threatens UAV airspace integration effort

The UK's ASTRAEA unmanned air vehicle airspace integration project is likely to advance into a second phase of activity, despite a decision by one of its key backers to withdraw funds from the initiative.

Launched in 2006 under a three-year commitment worth £32 million ($47 million), ASTRAEA aims to culminate in 2012 with a UAV flight demonstration in non-segregated airspace. Funds to date have been provided equally by the UK government and a consortium of aerospace companies.

Some £4.8 million of the government's initial £16 million investment was made by its Technology Strategy Board (TSB), but the body has recently rejected a phase two proposal tabled to continue the initiative.

"The Technology Strategy Board has advised the ASTRAEA consortium that it does not plan to offer financial support at the present time for the next stage of the project," the board says. The decision follows "an independent assessment of all aspects of the proposal and business case", it adds.

"The board has provided feedback on the proposal and has offered to review any revised proposal," it continues, while confirming that it "would not be able to offer funding until at least 2010".

While its withdrawal leaves a hole in the planned funding model for ASTRAEA 2, the TSB notes: "The decision does not prevent the consortium from seeking public funding from other sources, such as the regional development agencies and devolved assemblies [in Scotland and Wales]." Supporting projects through the National Aerospace Technology Strategy "remains an important part" of its activity, it adds.

A source involved in the ASTRAEA consortium is confident that the project will advance from later this month using funds from industry and government bodies excluding the TSB. Noting that other nations, including the USA, are placing increased emphasis on tackling the integration issues that have so far barred routine UAV operations, the source adds: "It would be a disaster if we stopped and deferred for a year."

A series of demonstrations performed last October showcased key elements of ASTRAEA's 16 phase one project areas, including the ability to avoid other aircraft during simulated autonomous sorties. BAE Systems, EADS, Qinetiq, Rolls-Royce and Thales are among industrial participants, and the same team is expected to remain in place for the next round of work.

If advanced, ASTRAEA 2 will be narrowed to five study areas, and include assessments of the integration demands facing different sizes of air vehicle. "There is a recognition that we also need to look at public perception" into the use of unmanned systems, says another industry source linked to the project.

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