Aberporth airfield finds niche as UAV refuge
Officials from the UK’s up-and-coming UAV test airfield are negotiating here this week with several American companies who have expressed frustration with the lack of timely cooperation from their own Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). The companies–some big, some small, according to the officials–might move the development and certification of new unmanned systems for commercial applications to Parc Aberporth, on the west coast of Wales.
“The FAA has told them that they don’t have the resources to help them certify, or to approve the airspace that they need for testing,” said Andrew Chadwick, business development manager of the West Wales UAV Center (WWUAVC)–a joint venture between the airport and QinetiQ that offers full technical support to the developers of UAVs. “We are not suggesting that the companies that we’re talking to should bypass the FAA,” Chadwick added. “They could clear their test plans in advance with the U.S. authorities, and then come here to achieve initial certification by the CAA [UK Civil Aviation Authority] and EASA [European Aviation Safety Agency].”
At a UAV exhibition and forum organized at Parc Aberporth last month, it seemed evident that European regulatory agencies are much more flexible than the FAA in their approach to airframe and airspace certification for UAVs. “We are working closely with Parc Aberporth and others–it’s all about interaction between us and industry,” said group captain John Clark from the CAA’s Directorate of Airspace Policy. Clark indicated that favorable consideration will be given to Aberporth’s pending application to lengthen its runway and extend its restricted airspace inland. It is currently limited to a five-mile radius and up to 5,000 feet. The airfield lies adjacent to a large, instrumented offshore test range, but UAV developers need to fly overland too, said Paul Cremin from the Welsh Development Agency (WDA).
The WDA has sponsored UAV developments at Aberporth, in an attempt to preserve high-technology jobs threatened by a run-down of military test activity on the offshore range. “We have 50 years of complex trials experience here,” Cremin noted.
“There’s nothing like our dizzy little airfield anywhere, and our airport operators’ manual for UAVs is a world-first,” added Carl Davies from the WWUAVC. Next November, he revealed, Thales UK will be bringing its newly-developed Watchkeeper military surveillance UAV to Aberporth for initial flight tests.
The forum was briefed on the progress of the autonomous systems technology related airborne evaluation and assessment (ASTRAEA) program. This has been a three-year, $60 million British effort to address the key issues involved in opening up non-segregated airspace to UAVs. These include “sense-and-avoid” technology development, the frequency spectrum and security of communications, and autonomous control. ASTRAEA has been jointly funded by seven key industry players and various UK government agencies. The results have contributed to a new chapter in the CAA’s guidance documents for UAV operations. “We’ve achieved some convincing results in synthetic environments; now we must demonstrate them in the real world,” said Lambert Dopping-Hepenstal of BAE Systems, one of the ASTRAEA partners. He looks forward to a second phase of the program, to kick off next year.
Meanwhile, the Eurocontrol air traffic agency has published specifications for the flying of military UAVs in Europe. The proposed regulations could equally apply to civilian UAVs, said Eurocontrol official Mike Strong. He suggested that line-of-sight operations by civilian UAVs used for policing and survey could gain approval as early as 2010. The next stage might involve “early RLOS (radar-enhanced line-of-sight)” operations, with UAVs certified to fly in IFR that are equipped with a “limited sense-and-avoid” capability such as TCAS. Approval to fly them in Class A through C airspace could come by 2015, said Strong. The final stage would be “later RLOS” in which all airspace classes would be opened up to UAVs that carry a sophisticated sense-and-avoid system, so that the responsibility for collision avoidance would rest with the UAV controller.