Dubai Air Show

UK Initiative Boosts Move Toward UAVs In Controlled Airspace

 - November 17, 2013, 7:30 AM
One artist’s concept depicts a future cargo UAV, which is projected as one use for unmanned aircraft in commercial air transportation.

Two UK airports announced earlier this year the creation of a National Aeronautical Centre (NAC) for the testing of unmanned aerial systems (UAS), the first such nongovernment venture in Europe. West Wales Airport at Aberporth and Newquay Airport in Cornwall, southwest England, have linked up to jointly offer to UAS developers (Unmanned Vehicles area, Stand 645) their facilities and runways, along with access to large offshore testing areas.

Speaking at the NAC launch in London on September 9, managing director of West Wales Airport (WWA) Ray Mann said the worldwide market for such systems is set to grow from £3 billion ($5 billion) today to “more than £30 billion [$50 billion] for military and £100 billion for civil applications by 2020.”

He said that the two centers would enhance the offering for “testing and training for civil and military systems,” extending what has been achieved at WWA “in the past 10 years” in becoming a UAV center of excellence to Newquay. The latter offers a longer runway (10,000 feet compared with WWA’s 4,000 feet) and additional offshore test airspace (enhancing the 2,000 sq mi at WWA with a further 3,000 sq mi offshore and from 5,000 feet to FL660). This, he said, would create a capability to test “anything developed by the aerospace industry over the next 20 years.” This would be particularly useful in areas where “confidence is still lacking, [such as] command and control.”

Newquay has also launched an Aerohub as “England’s only aerospace enterprise zone,” said Mann, so there is 283 acres available for development, “and half of that has airside access.” This is in addition to the ParcAberporth Technology Park at WWA.

Mann admitted that military budgets account for most of the NAC activity at present, “but now we want to encourage a focus on civil applications,” he said.

Watchkeeper To Fly

Richard Deakin, CEO of UK air navigation service provider NATS, said preparations are being made to fly the Thales Watchkeeper UAV in controlled airspace, which he said would be “a world’s first.” The Watchkeeper will be flown remotely by a pilot, something done only in nonsegregated/uncontrolled airspace to date, apart from using an “optionally” piloted aircraft–such as the ASTREA program’s BAe Jetstream (part-funded by BAE Systems) that was flown from Prestwick to Inverness last year with a pilot on board as a safety backup.

Deakin added that funding has now been secured from the European Union’s Single European Sky ATM Research (Sesar) project, which would lead to Watchkeeper flights in “the summer of 2014,” following simulations outside controlled airspace next April. Mann added that the Watchkeeper had already been flying for four years at WWA and that it has accumulated in excess of 300 flights. “Many others have used us,” he added, including Selex ES with its Falko UAS. He also noted that the GE EMCAT electromagnet launcher system is available as a support facility.

Deakin said, “New realms are opening up,” such as the use of UAVs for search and rescue, and, he said, “perhaps cargo UAVs will be the first step” in unmanned commercial air transportation. He added, “There is some way to go before we see remotely piloted passenger flights, but I am confident that perceptions will change.”

Remote Pilots a Problem

He admitted, however, that there is much work to be done. For example, he said, “Remote pilots are not subject to [formal] licensing at present.” Surprisingly, Deakin commented, “I am confident that we could integrate UASs into controlled airspace, so the door is open and I’m looking forward to the first team coming through that door.”

However, there are many caveats to his comments: to date regulators have flatly refused to countenance such flights without a pilot onboard, as Gary Clayton, chairman of the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Systems Association (UAVS), pointed out at the NAC launch event.

Neither, it appears, are there any clear regulations yet. “CAP 722 [a CAA publication giving guidance on unmanned aircraft system operations in UK airspace] is the key document,” said Clayton. “It is the most advanced document at the moment but it is only guidance.” The UK took the lead in establishing CAP722, alongside updates to its Air Navigation Order (ANO), and, according to Clayton, it has been used around the world as a blueprint. He added that the industry has reached an understanding with regulators that there would be a principle of “equivalence” as far as ATC goes. Deakin agreed that NATS would not ask anything more of UAVs than already asked of manned aircraft, something the CAA has also stated.

Mann pointed out that it is other regulation that is underdeveloped at present. “UAV manufacturers don’t have a clear mandate on what regulations to adhere to…It is still not clear.” Clayton said that “equivalence” in this case is hard to identify because the regulations refer again and again to “the pilot shall.”

Asked what the “equivalent” of a pilot is (CAP 722 refers to “equivalent and transparent” with regard to manned aircraft), Deakin said that “sense and avoid” is easier in controlled airspace because radars and transponders show where the aircraft is, but he admitted that there would have to be a pilot talking back to controllers to accept instructions. “You don’t have to invent a robot pilot,” said Mann, as the ground-based remote pilot can talk to the controllers.

Difficulties arise, however, when it comes to dealing with emergencies and failures, for example, in the datalink–and convincing regulators that a pilot is not required in the aircraft to handle this in controlled airspace.

“It is recognized at the moment that you will always have to have a man in the loop,” said Mann. He added, “The question facing the industry and regulators is what kind of redundancy and fail-safe procedures and technology are required to see UAVs unsegregated from commercial air traffic without a pilot on board “just in case.”

UK company Qinetiq is also very much involved at WWA and reported at the DSEi event in London in September that it was seeking opportunities for UAS development in the Middle East, where, in particular, it sees the oil-and-gas sector as potentially a very large market. Until recently the company operated the Aeronautics Aerostar UAV in Afghanistan for the Royal Netherlands Army.