AIN Blog: Differing Approaches to UAV Airspace Integration

 - July 30, 2012, 9:00 AM
BAE Systems flying testbed for unmanned aircraft systems
On static display at the Farnborough Airshow in July was a Jetstream 31 that will serve as a flying test bed for UAV technologies. (Photo: Bill Carey)

The UAV community that will meet soon in Las Vegas for Unmanned Systems North America might draw some wisdom from the effort to introduce unmanned aircraft in UK civil airspace. In a July 12 briefing at the Farnborough Airshow outside of London, the director of the UK’s Autonomous Systems Technology Related Airborne Evaluation & Assessment (Astraea) described an approach that differs in fundamental ways from the U.S. strategy of integrating UAVs.

According to the FAA, more than 50 companies, universities and government agencies in the U.S. are developing some 155 unmanned aircraft designs. In contrast, the UK effort has coalesced around a handful of major aerospace companies that are perhaps best able to crack the technical challenges to UAV airspace integration, foremost among them autonomous operation, secure communications and “sense-and-avoid” collision avoidance. Astraea is an industry-government partnership supported by the UK government through the Technology Strategy Board, a non-departmental public body, the Welsh government and economic development organization Scottish Enterprise. The industry partners are software firm AOS, which specializes in autonomous systems, joined by BAE Systems, Cobham, Cassidian, QinetiQ, Rolls-Royce and Thales.

That’s not to say that industry and government in the U.S. don’t collaborate on UAVs. Major UAV manufacturers and suppliers here formed the Unmanned Aircraft Systems National Industry Team (Unite) in 2002. Unite initially received NASA funding, unfortunately later cancelled, to develop technologies needed to integrate UAVs in the U.S. national airspace system. Industry also interacts with the FAA through RTCA Special Committee 203, which is developing minimum aviation system performance standards for unmanned aircraft systems. Then there’s the 7,000-member Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), which sponsors Unmanned Systems North America and represents industry, government and academia.

Astraea is distinguished by conducting applied research into UAV airspace integration. The consortium is working with the UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) on the “virtual certification” of an unmanned aircraft, developing a generic, functional systems architecture within a Jetstream 31 twin turboprop. That aircraft, fitted with various sensors, will be used in a series of 20 or more flight tests over the Irish Sea and through UK airspace. “If you started with a paper unmanned aircraft, it would be a huge task and you’d never be quite certain you’ve covered everything,” explained BAE Systems engineering director Lambert Dopping-Hepenstal, who serves as Astraea’s program director. “What we’ve done is we’ve started with an extremely well known, well documented aircraft and just looked at the deltas. What are we going to take out of that if we convert it into being a truly unmanned aircraft and what have we got to add in?”

The FAA has adopted a tiered approach to introducing UAVs in unrestricted airspace beginning with the smallest air vehicles, where the greatest market growth is expected. No doubt AUVSI conferees will be interested to hear of progress on the agency’s delayed notice of proposed rulemaking for UAVs weighing up to 55 pounds. Asked if Astraea is taking a similar tiered approach, Dopping-Hepenstal acknowledged, “I guess we’re looking at it through the bigger aircraft eyes at the moment.” But the program is “size and airspace independent,” and any technological developments for larger aircraft should have application for smaller ones, he said.

In a sense, the UK already has small UAVs covered. CAA permission to operate is not required for aircraft weighing 20 kg (44 pounds) or less, provided they are not engaged in “aerial work” for compensation and are flown within line of sight and well away from people, property and congested areas, according to the agency. Operations conducted for aerial work within congested areas or close to people for surveillance or data acquisition purposes do require prior permission. The CAA reports issuing 120 permits for unmanned aircraft aerial work since 2010.

The Astraea effort is scheduled to end early next year before the widespread introduction of UAVs becomes reality. Dopping-Hepenstal believes that could be achieved before the end of the decade. (He remarked that the U.S. goal of introducing UAVs by September 2015 is “possibly on the optimistic side.”) In the UK, unmanned aircraft are to be introduced incrementally, beginning with less risky operations such as overwater fisheries protection, he said. In that way, “we can gain public confidence that these things really are as safe as we say they will be.”