The use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in civil, non-segregated airspace took another step forward early last month at the unmanned systems trade show at the ParcAberporth research and development center on the west coast of Wales when Thales UK and Elbit Systems of Israel demonstrated their Hermes 450. The flight was the first of a pilotless aircraft weighing more than 330 pounds in non-segregated UK airspace. The Hermes is the platform for the UK’s Watchkeeper intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance program.
The government-backed Welsh Development Agency (WDA) intends to establish ParcAberporth, a former Royal Air Force base, as a center of excellence for both military and civil UAV developments. According to David Barnes, chairman of Britain’s UAV Systems Association (UAVSA), UAVs are destined to take over civil and paramilitary roles–such as surveillance and search-and-rescue–that are currently the domain of manned aircraft. He estimated that UAVs will be permitted to ly routinely in civil-controlled airspace in five to 10 years.
The WDA has partnered with the UAVSA to form a Parc Aberporth-based joint venture called UAV Systems Services to issue–on behalf of the UK Civil Aviation Authority–the exemptions needed for UAVs weighing less than 330 pounds to fly in civil airspace. Larger UAVs have to secure exemptions from the European Aviation Safety Agency.
The European UAV Systems Center has also opened an office at ParcAberporth, which is now part of the civil West Wales Airport, to promote UAV developments throughout the continent.
The September 7 trade show at Parc-Aberporth also saw the launch of the UK’s autonomous systems technology related airborne evaluation (Astraea) initiative. The project, now backed with almost $60 million in private-sector and government funding, will work toward the “normalization” of UAV operations in all types of airspace.
The initiative’s main backers include BAE Systems, EADS, QinetiQ, Flight Refueling and Thales UK, as well as several leading academic institutions. “We need to create an environment in which UAVs can be used in a manner similar to manned aircraft,” said Simon Jewell, chairman of the Astraea steering board. “If not, UAVs will be marginalized.”
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.