According to the UAV community, unmanned aerial vehicles face a busy future with all sorts of possible new civil and paramilitary applications, including security surveillance over urban areas, search-and-rescue missions, as well as environmental and infrastructure monitoring. But first the pilotless aircraft must be cleared for use in civil controlled airspace and this will require extensive test flights in conditions that do not compromise the safety of existing manned aircraft operations.
It is with this need to make UAV operations in civil airspace routine that the new Parc Aberporth research-and-development center has been established on the west coast of Wales. The facility is positioning itself as a center of excellence for both civil and military UAV development.
The 50-acre Parc Aberporth technology park has been developed with government funding from the Welsh Development Agency (WDA) at the privately owned West Wales Airport. The $36 million facility’s remote location on the UK’s Atlantic coast makes it ideal for testing UAVs in controlled airspace and proving the effectiveness of their sense-and-avoidance systems. The nearby 2,500-sq-mi Cardigan Bay has long been used for deploying and tracking military target drones. Next year, the airport’s runway length is to be extended to just over 3,900 feet.
In early September, Thales UK and Elbit Systems of Israel demonstrated their Hermes 450 aircraft at Parc Aberporth, marking the first time a pilotless aircraft weighing more than 330 pounds had been flown in nonsegregated UK airspace. The UAV was assigned its own call sign and when the operator filed a flight plan the number of passengers was officially listed as zero. The Hermes is the platform for the UK’s Watchkeeper intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance program.
According to David Barnes, chairman of Britain’s UAV Systems Association (UAVSA), Parc Aberporth will serve as “a crucible in which the UAV sector can be developed to fulfill its potential.” He estimated that it will take another five to 10 years for UAVs to be permitted to fly routinely in civil controlled airspace.
With the WDA, UAVSA has formed a Parc Aberporth-based joint venture called UAV Systems Services Ltd. which, on behalf of the UK Civil Aviation Authority, will issue the exemptions needed for UAVs weighing less than 330 pounds to fly in civil airspace. Larger UAVs have to secure exemptions from EASA. The European UAV Systems Center has also opened an office at Parc Aberporth and will use this to promote UAV developments throughout the continent.
The second annual Unmanned Systems trade show held at Parc Aberporth on September 7 also saw the launch of the UK’s Autonomous Systems Technology Related Airborne Evaluation (ASTRAEA) initiative. Beginning in January, the project, now backed with almost $60 million of private sector and government funding, will work toward the normalization of UAV operations in all types of airspace. Among ASTREA’s main backers are BAE Systems, EADS, Qinetiq, Flight Refuelling and Thales UK, as well as several leading academic institutions.
Possible civil applications for UAVs are to be explored through a new cooperation between Boeing, Qinetiq and Wales’ Institute of Grassland and Environmental Research. Among the programs being evaluated are aerial monitoring of crops, fish stocks and water supplies.
This year’s Dubai airshow includes, for the first time, a UAV pavilion. It is located at Stand E700 and has been organized by the U.S.-based Association for Unmanned Systems International.