Landmark Demonstration of Unmanned Flight
ASTRAEA, the pioneering £32million aerospace programme, has completed a major demonstration of autonomous technology.
In a week of events at ParcAberporth in West Wales, the programme used a synthetic environment to bring together much of the technology developed through the programme and demonstrate it through simulated scenarios.
Created in one large room over a three-week period, the synthetic environment saw algorithms (created by AOS, BAE Systems, Cobham, EADS, QinetiQ, Rolls-Royce and Thales) applied to one overall simulator. Two missions were then undertaken, overseen by a human mission commander and UAV pilot who controlled the level of autonomy given to the simulated aircraft.
The first mission simulated a UAV flight from ParcAberporth to perform a search and rescue mission over North Wales before landing on Anglesey. The second simulated a flight through existing airways from ParcAberporth to Sumburgh in the Shetlands, demonstrating the safe avoidance of other aircraft en route and the UAV’s ability to behave in the same manner as a manned aircraft.
Following the missions, the team then used the synthetic environment to demonstrate the autonomous technology’s response to a number of other possibilities including birdstrike and fuel starvation, indicating the potential role autonomous systems could play in enhancing safety in manned aircraft.
Although ASTRAEA is investigating both technological and regulatory issues related to the opening of non-segregated airspace to unmanned autonomous aircraft, this demonstration focused only on certain technological aspects, including ground planning, decision making (autonomy), sense and avoid capability, communications, ground movement route modification, formation flying and emergency planning.
Stakeholders who witnessed the demonstration throughout the week included ASTRAEA funders, government monitors, regulators, academics and several potential UAV users.
ASTRAEA is nearing the end of its first three-year phase, and is currently planning a second phase, estimated to be worth around £40million. Following the successful demonstration at ParcAberporth, it is hoped that the second phase will follow from 2009 onwards, leading to the possibility of unmanned flight in non-segregated airspace by 2012.
Commenting on the demonstration, ASTRAEA Vice Chairman, Nick Miller said: “This is indeed a significant event in the development of civil UAV use. Although UAVs can operate in tightly-restricted airspace already, this demonstration showed how they can be integrated into wider airspace and helped a range of stakeholders understand the steps we need to take to make the widespread civil use of UAVs a reality. Current regulations for non-restricted airspace assume that a pilot is present on an aircraft.
“It’s important to recognise however that the demonstration could not show the full extent of ASTRAEA’s achievements. In addition to the technological developments we have made, the ASTRAEA partnership has been heavily engaged with the CAA to look at the regulatory environment for UAV use. Technological and regulatory developments must happen together as each influences the other.
“As the programme develops we will continue to demonstrate how UAVs can operate in our airspace, interacting transparently and with equivalent levels of safety to manned aircraft.”
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