Researchers have designed an 'avoid and detect' system for unmanned drones that is as effective as a human pilot.
ASTRAEA (Autonomous Systems Technology Related Airborne Evaluation and Assessment) was created as a partnership between industry and the public sector in 2006 to research and demonstrate how UAVs could safely fly in airspace shared with other civilian aircraft.
And, according to programme director Lambert Dopping-Hepenstal, progress has been good after trial-runs using surrogate aircraft with human pilots as backup showed the system is at least as effective at detecting potential collisions as a human.
“As far as we can see the performance of the system is at least as good as a human pilot at seeing and avoiding other air users. I hasten to say we’ve probably not tested every situation but certainly the results to date have been extremely encouraging,” he says.
Dopping-Hepenstal reported on the progress of the project at a seminar on UAVs in civilian airspace organised by the Institution of Engineering and Technology at 76 Portland Place, London, today.
The team is testing both cooperative technology that relies on the collision avoidance systems that allow commercial jets to communicate with each other and non-cooperative technology, which effectively replaces a pilot's ability to spot aircraft without collision avoidance systems.
Researchers have been testing the system at their base at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam in different environments including layers of cloud, urban environments and maritime scenery by flying 'intruders' – a Cesna Citation business jet and a small Piper aircraft – at the surrogate planes.
“I think we have really satisfied ourselves that this can be done and therefore it is just a matter of monitoring and developing the technology to the point it can be fully certified,” says Dopping-Hepenstal.
The non-cooperative system relies on electrical-optical sensors – TV cameras – to spot incoming aircraft with enough time to undertake evasive manoeuvres.
“The electro-optical sensors are effectively replacing the human eye so they are the same sort of resolution as the human eye,” says Dopping-Hepenstal. “It’s then down to the clever algorithms, clever maths and interpretation of that maths to see if there is a risk of collision with another aircraft.”
The £62m research project was formed with seven industry members – AOS, BAE Systems, Cassidian, Cobham, QinetiQ, Rolls-Royce and Thales – and co-funded by the UK government-backed Technology Strategy Board, three English Regional Development Agencies, the Welsh Government and Scottish Enterprise.
The research goes a long way to meeting the two requirements that will be necessary to allow autonomous UAVs to be used in civilian airspace – transparency and equivalence.
Transparency relates to the aircraft's ability to operate in a way transparent to air traffic control, while equivalence relates to its ability to follow the rules of the air and be at least as safe as an equivalent manned aircraft.
And according to Dopping-Hepenstal, the mood at today’s conference is that research such as his team’s is edging a substantial civilian UAV market – predicted to be worth about $7.8bn a year to the UK before the end of this decade – closer to reality.
“I’m sure if we were having this conversation in 20 years' time I’m sure they’d be using things we’ve not even heard of yet. It’s a very exciting field and I’m sure if you look far enough ahead there will be a vast market for these things doing a huge variety of tasks.
“And it will be a new branch of aviation. It’s not a substitute; we’ll be using them to do things that are difficult or not safe to do with a manned aircraft.”
In particular he predicts that such aircraft will have a role in “dangerous and dirty” missions such as long search-and-rescue operations and monitoring major fires.
“The potential is huge,” he said. “The technology here doesn’t just apply to the aviation sector because the whole area of autonomous systems applies everywhere from assisted living for the elderly, to robotic surgery, to driverless cars.”
Concerns have been raised about the use of drones in civilian airspace but Mr Dopping-Hepenstal believes proper regulation will mean the substantial benefits will outweigh the negatives.
“The regulations are there to keep us safe,” he said. “I understand civil liberty organisations are worried about some of the potential uses of these things so it’s very important the regulations and legislations keep ahead of the technology. But it’s up to us in industry to prove to the regulators that these things are safe to operate.”
And he believes anyone with a loved one stuck on the side of a mountain like Snowdon will swiftly forget about any potential invasions of their privacy.
“Like everything there are good uses of these things and maybe not such good uses,” he said. “I’m personally convinced that the societal benefits of these things far outweigh any disadvantages and it’s up to us to make sure we control any potential disadvantages.”