Approved Version
Pioneering first remotely piloted flight under NATS control
World-leading UK research programme paves the way
for future civil unmanned aviation
In April 2013, a Jetstream research aircraft completed a 500-mile flight through UK
airspace while under the command of a ground-based pilot and control of NATS air
traffic controllers.
The return journey1, which was staged in conjunction with NATS, used advanced
sensors and on-board robotic systems to control the aircraft once in the air.
The flight is one of a number of significant technology demonstrations2 conducted in
recent weeks by ASTRAEA, a world-leading UK research programme into the future
of civilian unmanned aircraft. Others include a pilot simultaneously co-ordinating two
small, unmanned aircraft in a simulated search and rescue (SAR) mission; a team of
specially equipped vehicles replicating the demands of a secure and robust
communications network whilst driving through remote and mountainous Welsh
countryside; work to develop an automatic in-flight refuelling system that could allow
unmanned aircraft to operate for extended periods of time for example while
undertaking SAR operations far out at sea; and the conversion of an engine test bed
into an intelligent and integrated power systems rig, successfully demonstrating the
complete autonomous operation of an unmanned aircraft’s propulsion and electrical
system from start up to shut down, including ‘self-healing’ to ensure the safety of the
A key focal point in programme has been the development of a Detect and Avoid
(DAA) capability3 for unmanned aircraft that is able to reliably perform both
separation provision & collision avoidance functions. A prototype system has been
developed in cognisance of the overarching requirement for unmanned aircraft to
operate in accordance with the rules and obligations that apply to manned aircraft.
The system architecture has benefited from significant input from air safety experts
as well as the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA).
These tests, a result of seven years research, will in future help British aerospace
companies compete in the emerging civilian unmanned aircraft market.
ASTRAEA (Autonomous Systems Technology Related Airborne Evaluation &
Assessment) was created in 2006 to research and demonstrate how an unmanned
aircraft could safely integrate itself into airspace shared with other aircraft. It is
unique in its holistic approach to the problem, addressing the human-side of the
equation (legislation and the operational control of unmanned aircraft), not just the
technical challenges4. Indeed, it is likely that many emerging technologies could be
used to make current manned aircraft operations even safer.
A consortium of seven major companies led the £62m 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 –
encouraging both industry and the regulatory authorities (the CAA) to ensure that the
new technologies and processes realise their potential and demonstrate at least
equivalence with manned aircraft safety standards.
To date more than 100 companies and universities have contributed to, and
benefited from, the programme, including many small to medium sized enterprises5.
ASTRAEA has filed 12 multi-faceted patents and earned four prestigious industry
awards including the Institute of Engineering & Technology’s Award for Innovation in
Commenting on the programme to date Business and Energy Minister Michael Fallon
“We welcome this pioneering flight at the end of the ASTRAEA programme.
ASTRAEA has made significant achievements, placing the UK industry in a good
position globally on unmanned aircraft and the development of regulations for their
civil use.”
Speaking to the way forward Simon Jewell, ASTRAEA Steering Board chairman said,
“In order to build on the momentum generated by ASTRAEA over the last seven
years and preserve the unitary approach to supporting the evolving regulatory
environment in this important area, the ASTRAEA consortium intend to continue to
work closely with the regulatory authorities in the UK, Europe and globally.”
For further information, interviews and imagery contact:
Richard Knight [email protected] / +44 (0) 7725 996 625
Jules Tipler [email protected] / +44 (0) 7811 166 796
1. The return journey from Preston, North West England, to Inverness, Scotland,
was staged in conjunction with NATS (the UK’s En-Route Air Traffic Control
Service provider), with the pilot, based at Warton, Lancashire, using
advanced sensors and on-board robotic systems to control the aircraft once in
the air.
2. 11 aircraft have flown more than 80 flights and recorded in excess of 380
flight hours in the UK and mainland Europe. 800 miles have been flown by
small unmanned aircraft.
3. Extensive DAA trials have been undertaken using prototype equipment
installed on both fixed and rotary wing aircraft to exercise performance
against representative ‘intruder’ types and demanding encounter geometries.
The DAA surrogate aircraft flights were conducted both in the UK and the
Netherlands using a Metroliner trials platform provided by the Netherlands
Research Laboratories (NLR). Trials data has de-risked development of a
pre-production system for future trials.
4. ASTRAEA has generated a range of innovations that may find application not
only in unmanned aircraft but also in manned aviation, and other sectors.
These include autonomous ‘detect and avoid’ systems capable of tracking up
to 20,000 objects simultaneously to prevent collisions with other aircraft,
terrain or man-made structures and intelligent power management systems
that can ‘self-heal’ to ensure the safety of the aircraft.
5. AOS, the SME partner in the consortium, is now working with Statoil ASA of
Norway, the world’s third-largest oil company, to introduce intelligent and
autonomous systems into their offshore operations. The first target is offshore
drilling, where current systems are highly human-centric. Statoil’s exposure to
ASTRAEA through AOS, including the work on autonomy and collaboration
with the regulator, has influenced Statoil’s thinking in this area, clearly
demonstrating the spin-off benefits from the programme.