If you build it, they will come. The UK National Aeronautical Centre (Hall 1 Stand C9) has answered the first part of that challenge by making available the facilities to fly large unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) beyond a pilot’s visual line of sight, in an environment that also accommodates manned aviation. The center now awaits a response from what is expected to be a boom market for commercial UAS.
The UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) restricts UAS operations to segregated airspace, including airspace identified as a “danger area” because of military testing activities. Until unmanned aircraft have an approved means to “detect and avoid” other flying objects, their use is confined to these designated areas. “It’s really about the airspace; it’s about the ability to operate,” said Ray Mann, who first announced the National Aeronautical Center at the 2012 Farnborough Airshow.
Mann, an entrepreneur and the owner of an electronics recycling business, acquired West Wales Airport in Aberporth, an inactive, World War II airfield, in 2001 to fly back and forth from his cottage in Wales. The airport lies within the “D201” danger area, covering some 2,000 square miles of Cardigan Bay to the west. The Ministry of Defence’s Aberporth Range manages the airspace, which it uses to test air-launched weapons and UAS. When he bought it, West Wales Airport was open to other aircraft operators, but traffic was light so Mann sought other ways to make it a going concern. “I was making maximum use of [the airport] to run my business and I felt, well, in acquiring this piece of tarmac and a field, I had a piece of the UK’s aviation infrastructure,” he recounted.
The airport hasd served as a site for testing UAS since 2004. There in September 2005, contractor Thales conducted the first flight in the UK of a tactical UAS–the Elbit Hermes 450, which serves as the basis of the British Army’s Watchkeeper UAS. Mann said he applied for and received CAA authority to host ongoing UAS operations in 2006. In 2011, at the request of the airport and the Welsh government, which owns the adjoining Parc Aberporth technology park, the CAA authorized another 500 square miles of segregated airspace over land to the east, specifically for the purpose of testing and developing UAS.
West Wales Airport manages some 1,500 aircraft movements a year, of which 80 percent are by unmanned aircraft. “We have a specialty and it’s open to all,” Mann said. “It’s not focused necessarily on military, it’s not focused on civilian, it’s focused on unmanned systems–on an ability to be able to operate them within a regulated aviation environment.”
Last September, the aeronautical center announced a partnership with Newquay Cornwall Airport in southwest England, another facility with aspirations, but not the same expertise, for hosting UAS operations. Whereas West Wales Airport has a 1,200-meter runway, Newquay Cornwall, the former RAF St. Mawgan, boasts a 3,000-meter runway and access to 3,088 square miles of segregated airspace. “We needed to heighten the focus of attention for people to understand that this is really a huge opportunity and a fantastic environment that nobody else has,” Mann said of the partnership.
West Wales Airport remains important to the Watchkeeper program. The UK Ministry of Defence awarded the system a formal release to service to the British Army in March. In April, the airport announced the award of a two-year, £2.5 million ($4.3 million) contract from the MOD to continue supplying its airfield and services for Watchkeeper test and evaluation.
Watchkeeper airframes are trucked to Aberporth two at a time from manufacturer UAV Tactical Systems, the Thales UK and Elbit joint venture based in Leicester. The aircrafts are assembled at an MOD facility adjoining the airport and run through initial ground and flight-testing. AIN was on hand for the first ground run and test flight of Watchkeeper number 33 on July 8; the Army’s requirement is for 54 air vehicles. This was the airport’s 368th Watchkeeper flight since the derivative first flew in the UK in April 2010. The operation has not escaped controversy; local activists and anti-war groups have protested the flights and complained over noise.
Mann acknowledged that commercial UAS testing at the airport has been slow to develop. “We are open for business on a permanent basis to fly unmanned systems. That isn’t to say that the skies around here are black with unmanned [aircraft],” he said.
While the market for smaller UAS weighing up to 20 kilograms (44 pounds) appears to be taking off, there is little activity worldwide on larger, commercial systems that will need to be equivalent in performance to manned aircraft, he explained. Among capable aerospace manufacturers, “there doesn’t seem to be a vision and there doesn’t seem to be an appetite for them to spend their money to create something to go to market with,” Mann said. “Most aviation companies are wedded to passenger aircraft because they know that market and they’re comfortable with that market, and others are wedded to the military budget and it’s not their money they’re spending.”
Ever the entrepreneur, Mann said that he is not discouraged by the slow pace of commercial UAS development. In fact, he’s optimistic: “I’m not the least bit disappointed,” he asserted. “I am incredibly excited that we have done what we’ve done, and that we’ve got to where we have and financially succeeded. That’s unusual. Most airfields are struggling to live under a general aviation business model.”