Surrogate UAV prepares for maiden flight in UK airspace

A Jet­stream air­craft known as ‘The Fly­ing Test Bed’, which can fly as if it were a UAV (Unin­hab­it­ed Air Vehi­cle), is under­go­ing a series of flight tri­als in prepa­ra­tion for the first maid­en flight of a sur­ro­gate UAV in UK shared air­space lat­er this year.

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The air­craft will fly using Instru­ment Flight Rules under air traf­fic con­trol. In prepa­ra­tion, tri­als tak­ing place this month include the world’s first use of autonomous, vision-based weath­er-avoid­ance rout­ing and the first UK sur­ro­gate flight of a ful­ly func­tion­al visu­al sense-and-avoid sys­tem which includes col­li­sion avoid­ance tests using a sec­ond air­craft. This tri­al will begin to demon­strate to reg­u­la­tors such as the Civ­il Air Author­i­ty and air traf­fic con­trol ser­vice providers, the progress made towards achiev­ing the safe use of UAVs in UK airspace. 

The new tech­nol­o­gy is part of a suite of inno­va­tions being brought togeth­er for the first time as a UK indus­try-led pro­gramme known as ASTRAEA (Autonomous Sys­tems Tech­nol­o­gy Relat­ed Air­borne Eval­u­a­tion & Assess­ment); a UK indus­try-led con­sor­tium focus­ing on the tech­nolo­gies, sys­tems, facil­i­ties, pro­ce­dures and reg­u­la­tions that will allow autonomous vehi­cles to oper­ate safe­ly and rou­tine­ly in civ­il air­space over the Unit­ed Kingdom. 

Lam­bert Dopping-Hep­en­stal, the Engi­neer­ing Direc­tor at BAE Sys­tems respon­si­ble for the ASTRAEA pro­gramme said: “The use of a sur­ro­gate Unin­hab­it­ed Air Vehi­cle allows pro­to­type autonomous sys­tems devel­oped by the ASTRAEA team to be eval­u­at­ed safe­ly in the air. The BAE Sys­tems Jet­stream Fly­ing Test Bed has been con­fig­ured as a “sur­ro­gate UAV’ where the on-board pilots can take their hands off the con­trols and hand over con­trol to the on-board sys­tem devel­oped by the ASTRAEA team. Racks of com­put­ers and con­trol sys­tems in the rear of the air­craft mean it can fly as if it were a UAV with­out any input from the pilots. 

He con­tin­ued: “The ASTRAEA sys­tem is capa­ble of pre­vent­ing mid-air col­li­sions with oth­er air­craft using a ‘sense and avoid’ sys­tem, detect­ing and avoid­ing bad weath­er con­di­tions and relay­ing air traf­fic con­trol instruc­tions to the remote pilot via satel­lite to the ground con­trol sta­tion. The weath­er avoid­ance sys­tem will use sophis­ti­cat­ed image pro­cess­ing tech­niques to detect and avoid clouds and is just one of the new capa­bil­i­ties being test­ed onboard the Jetstream.” 

From now and until the win­ter, the ASTRAEA sys­tem on-board the Jet­stream will be put through its paces, in a series of at least 20 flight tests over the Irish Sea and through UK airspace. 

BAE Systems 

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