The Jetstream 31 pilotless plane

Pilotless aircraft trialled in British airspace

Image credit: BAE Systems

A self-piloting aircraft is being tested in Scotland as part of a project that aims to assess how autonomous air vehicles could be integrated into UK airspace.

The Jestream 31 aircraft by BAE Systems flies itself from the firm’s base in Warton, Lancashire, to Inverness. Two pilots are aboard for the duration of the flights but only handle the plane during take-off and landing. The robotic aircraft is in charge of itself for the remainder of the 480km journey. The craft flies at 4.5km for an hour and a half, receiving data via a satellite link and using a cockpit-mounted camera acting as an electronic eye. The electronic eye allows Jetstream to spot potential hazards, including bad weather, and adjust its route.

“Our priority as always is to demonstrate the safe and effective operation of autonomous systems and together with [air traffic control body] NATS we are working towards the possibility of flying our own unmanned systems in a highly controlled environment in the UK,” said Maureen McCue, BAE Systems’ head of research and technology for the military aircraft and information business. “The trials are an exciting time and will give us technology options that could be applied to our own manned and unmanned aircraft as well potentially enabling us to take some new unmanned aircraft technologies to market.”

BAE Systems plans to conduct 17 test flights to test the technology, which wouldn’t require construction of any further Earth-based infrastructure.

“NATS is always striving to find new and advanced ways to fully support the development and safe use of the ever-growing market of unmanned aerial vehicles by all users, hobbyist to professional,” said Alastair Muir, director, Prestwick, NATS.

“We are very pleased to have supported our BAE Systems colleagues in this trial using aircraft operations of this scale and are currently working with the rest of the industry to agree how this exciting technology can be fully realised and integrated safely with conventional aviation.”

The current trials, worth £400,000, are a continuation of an earlier BAE Systems research project that ran between 2008 and 2013.

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