An initiative to create a UK centre of excellence for unmanned air vehicle technologies has been cleared for take-off in Wales

The UK's desire to introduce unmanned air vehicles into widespread military and commercial use is facing an emerging crisis of confidence: how to demonstrate the safe and routine operation of these systems in heavily congested airspace?

Far from calling on the experience and experimentation of old hands such as Israel and the USA, the answer to this riddle could come via a newly opened centre of excellence for the development and demonstration of UAV technologies located on the remote west Wales coast.

Under construction as a result of a £21.5 million ($40 million) investment by Welsh authorities, the European Union and private funds, the Welsh Development Agency (WDA) -headed ParcAberporth centre is seen as a future focus for UK and European development in material, sensor and software design for unmanned systems. Along with Ministry of Defence and Qinetiq-run test ranges at nearby Aberporth and Llanbedr, it is viewed as a likely location for future flight testing as part of the UK's movement toward the routine operation of unmanned systems in its airspace.

More than 300 people from eight countries attended the opening of the ParcAberporth site on 13 July, with a linked exhibition attracting industry involvement from 24 companies, including BAE Systems, EADS, Elbit, Northrop Grumman and Thales.

While its infrastructure is still being put in place, ParcAberporth has already secured its first customer - the European UAV Systems Centre has signed a memorandum of understanding to take floor space at the site. Both bidders then involved in the UK MoD's Watchkeeper intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance UAV project also voiced their backing for the initiative. Thales was named preferred bidder for the £800 million requirement on 20 July and says it will flight test its UAV systems in the Cardigan Bay area.

A Thales source says the company's commitment to the Welsh initiative stems from the potential future export of its WK180 and WK450 air vehicles, which will require civil certification. The UAVs are to be developed from the Elbit Silver Arrrow Hermes 180 and 450 systems and manufactured in the UK. Opening an airspace corridor from ParcAberporth to a test area off the Welsh coast could prove beneficial during this process, says the source, and will enable commercial UAV developers to "ride on our coat-tails" in gaining access from the site. A later emphasis of activities will be to expand unmanned operations inland around the ParcAberporth site.

Around 230 jobs will be created within the next three years under Phase 1 development of the site and an initial 20 acres (8Ha) will be transformed by September 2005. A future project phase could expand this employment level up to 1,000 and see the site expand across 50 acres.

Runway extension

Already under way, Phase 1a development includes the construction of three high-specification industrial units totalling more than 2,100m2 (23,000ft2). These include a technology unit with office accommodation, a research and development facility and a light industrial unit. Phase 1b comprises additional buildings covering a further 2,000m2. "This is a sustainable project which fits in with the local environment," says WDA project manager Sue Wolfe. ParcAberporth is co-located with the current West Wales airport, which could also experience further development including a runway extension under the second project phase. This could see it increase business aviation activities alongside any future UAV flight operations, says Welsh economic development minister Andrew Davies.

EADS's Scorpio light vertical take-off and landing UAV was the only one of some 12 designs on show to fly during the opening event. This modest beginning underlines the stiff challenge facing developers and operators as they strive to get their systems integrated within commercial airspace. High wind speeds prevented an unmanned airship from taking to the air during the event, which saw the West Wales airport closed to civilian traffic for the duration of the flight demonstration.

A similar trial conducted at the facility the previous day marked the first approved use of an unmanned system in controlled UK airspace, demonstrating the massive advances needed before UK operators can achieve the holy grail of gaining "file-and-fly" approval to use their systems. The industry-backed Access 5 programme is pursuing a similar goal in the USA.

A cross-government and industry stakeholder group has been set up to gain regulatory approvals which will lead to routine UAV operations across UK civil airspace, starting from Aberporth and Llanbedr. The group includes representatives from the Civil Aviation Authority, Defence Diversification Agency, Department of Trade and Industry, MoD and the UK Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Systems (UAVS) Association.

UAV vanguard

The establishment of the ParcAberporth centre is another positive move which appears certain to aid this proving process.

Wales boasts just 5% of the UK's population but is responsible for 10% of the UK aerospace sector's employee base, with around 20,000 jobs sustained by some 150 aerospace companies. This performance rises to 40% in the maintenance, repair and overhaul sector, with organisations such as the Defence Aviation and Repair Agency heavily active in the region.

Steps supported by the Welsh Assembly and the WDA to place the country at the forefront of development and test activities linked to UAV technologies could see it secure significant business and job opportunities over the coming decades.

With its low population density, congestion-free airspace, skilled workforce and established military test facilities at Aberporth and Llanbedr, the Cardigan Bay region of west Wales has been identified as the fulcrum for this UAV development activity and is now witnessing the early stages of a bright transformation.



Source: Flight International