One of ASTRAEA's test aircraft at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam

First unmanned flight over British airspace

The first unmanned flight over British airspace has been successfully completed.

Aerospace company BAE Systems flew a Jetstream 31 – dubbed the "flying test bed" – from Warton near Preston in Lancashire to Inverness in Scotland.

Strictly speaking the flight was not an unmanned one, in that two pilots were in the cockpit as a precaution, but as a BAE Systems spokesman said: "They were sitting there having a coffee. They did not have to do anything."

The aircraft was controlled by a pilot at Warton using advanced sensors and on-board robotic systems as part of the £62m ASTRAEA (Autonomous Systems Technology Related Airborne Evaluation & Assessment) programme, which is backed by the government.

Previous test flights were over the Irish Sea but this flight, made last month, was the first over airspace used by other aircraft with the Jetsream able to use its "sense and avoid" system to avoid collisions.

The aircraft can also detect and avoid bad weather conditions and can relay air traffic control instructions to the pilot on the ground via satellite.

Although unmanned passenger flights are probably many years off, the programme could in the shorter term be used for such things as search and rescue operations far out at sea.

ASTRAEA programme director Lambert Dopping-Hepenstal said the work being done "will likely impact all of us in the next five, 10, 20 years as unmanned aircraft and associated technology develop and become a part of everyday life".

He added: "These latest trials help prove the technology we need to routinely operate unmanned aircraft in our airspace and also help the regulators develop the framework in which the aircraft can operate in.”

Business and energy minister Michael Fallon said: "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."

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