Civil certification of unmanned aerial vehicles has taken on new momentum over the past few years with the realization that there could be a large number of potential uses for them–from law enforcement to, eventually, air cargo. A UK-based European consortium now claims to be leading the world to get UAVs approved for flights in civil airspace in conjunction with Britain’s Civil Aviation Authority.
According to Lambert Dopping-Hepenstal, BAE Systems engineering director for systems and strategy, the company came relatively late to the unmanned aircraft business. “But now we are trying to catch up and jump a generation,” he said.
“We rapidly went through a number of experimental aircraft and now have Herti, based on a single-seat glider, with a small engine on the back,” Dopping-Hepenstal explained. “It is autonomous to a high degree and we are trying to use it to move the boundaries forward. The first production version is undergoing trials in Australia at the moment.”
Dopping-Hepenstal also said that the Mantis “deep and persistent” military UAV first flight is “due in the next few weeks. It is twin-engined and therefore more likely to be the kind of vehicle that could use European airspace.”
Three years ago BAE Systems and others started the ASTRAEA consortium (the acronym stands for Autonomous Systems Technology Related Airborne Evaluation and Assessment) specifically to address how to get to the point where civil UAVs could be certified. “At the moment there is an implicit assumption that there is a man on board [an aircraft],” said Dopping-Hepenstal. “It’s a Catch 22 situation–the regulators want to see examples to see if it’s safe or not; and we want the regulations before we commit to development.”
ASTRAEA has just entered its second phase, with the £32 million ($48 million) funding being met 50 percent by the partners (BAE Systems, EADS, Cobham, Qinetiq, Rolls-Royce and Thales). The other firm involved is software specialist Agent Oriented Software, and there also are various SMEs [small- and medium-sized enterprises] and universities involved.
“The CAA has now produced the CAP722 guidance document which is the only one of its kind in the world,” Dopping-Hepenstal told the recent an audience at the Royal Aeronautical Society in London. “ASTRAEA is trying to develop CAP722 further to create a mandatory annex to existing regulations, saying what additional requirements need to be met when a vehicle is unmanned.
“It’s unique–the only group in the world that is addressing the whole problem, from synthetic environments to health management and prognostics to ensure that the vehicle understands its state of health,” he added.
The experimental hardware was fitted to a Herti and underwent trials at Barrow Island airfield in the north of England, which is owned by BAE Systems.
“We need to understand what is required for a certifiable sense-and-avoid system, which we have developed and tested successfully in a synthetic environment,” said Dopping-Hepenstal.
In addition, the consortium is aiming to get nonmilitary frequencies allocated at the 2011 radio spectrum conference, and Rolls-Royce is working on developing a low-cost engine.
ASTRAEA took its integrated demonstrator to the Parc Aberporth UAV show in 2008 and flew a complex synthetic SAR mission and a mission joining airways to Sumbrugh. “It was interesting getting seven companies to create a synthetic environment that integrated and shared all their models. It was quite an achievement in its own right. It was a great step forward and showed that it is a realistic possibility,” said Dopping-Hepenstal.
Cobham (Hall 2 Stand E83) did some actual flying and achieved the first UAV non-cooperative autonomous formation flight using vision-based guidance systems.
ASTRAEA Phase II will start this year taking key technology areas up to technology readiness level 7 from level 3. This will cover sense and avoid, secure command and control, as well as data communications, antonymous decisionmaking and configuration management, prognostics, health management and control systems.
“The CAA is very interested and involved,” said Dopping-Hepenstal, “and they want to do a virtual certification exercise so they can test these things out as they go along. By 2012 we should be able to have initial applications, such as border surveillance work with the [UK] South Coast Partnership [which includes law enforcement agencies]. We in industry have to prove that it can be done in ASTRAEA II, and we are trying to do it without needing a major revolution in ATC systems.”