UK Conducts First Large Drone Flight in Unrestricted Airspace

 - October 15, 2015, 4:05 PM
A British Army Watchkeeper unmanned aircraft takes off from West Wales Airport in July 2014. (Photo: Bill Carey)

NATS, the air navigation service provider of the UK, and manufacturer Thales said they conducted the first flight of an unmanned aircraft system (UAS) in non-segregated, controlled airspace over Wales late last month, a UK first. Participants expect the trial involving the 1,050-pound Thales Watchkeeper will help establish the operational and regulatory conditions for future unmanned aircraft flights in unrestricted airspace.

The milestone flight, part of an ongoing demonstration, took place on September 30, but was announced by the parties on October 15. The Watchkeeper took off from West Wales Airport in Aberporth and flew for three and a half hours, including an hour within controlled airspace for the first time. The privately owned general aviation airport near Cardigan Bay lies within segregated airspace managed by the UK Ministry of Defence’s Aberporth Range for testing air-launched weapons and unmanned aircraft.

At the same site in September 2005, Thales conducted the first flight in the UK of a military UAS—the Elbit Hermes 450. The Watchkeeper surveillance drone, which is flown by the British Army, is a derivative of that aircraft.

“What we set out to prove is that it is possible to safely integrate and control a UAS in non-segregated airspace with conventional aircraft,” said Simon Hocquard, NATS operations strategy director. “Once you do that, you open up enormous potential future opportunities for unmanned flight that go well beyond the kind of lightweight UAS that we’re all familiar with.”

Thales noted that the Watchkeeper was the first UAS of its type to obtain a release to service in Europe. “Its type assurance and certification allows Watchkeeper to fly in non-segregated airspace, a certification pedigree that is transferable to regulatory authorities within other NATO member countries and the European Aviation Safety Agency,” the company said.

The flight was conducted as part of Project CLAIRE (CiviL Airspace Integration of RPAS in Europe), a collaboration of Thales, NATS and the Dutch National Aerospace Laboratory, with co-funding by the Single European Sky ATM Research Joint Undertaking, to demonstrate the introduction of remotely piloted aircraft systems, or RPAS, in civilian airspace. The UK Civil Aviation Authority and MOD are supporting the effort.

Separately, on October 13, General Atomics announced that it has flown a company-owned Predator B with a Rohde & Schwarz air traffic control radio supporting VHF and UHF air-to-air and air-to-ground communications. The manufacturer has integrated the radio as part of its effort to develop a “certifiable” Predator B for European customers, and to add German and European payload capability to its Predator-series aircraft.

“Integrating Rohde & Schwarz’s R&S MR6000A aboard Predator B is a big step forward in meeting the airworthiness type-certification requirements of our current and future European customers,” said Linden Blue, General Atomics Aeronautical Systems CEO. He added: “We are excited to leverage R&S MR6000A’s capabilities to enhance Predator B’s safe flight in domestic and international airspace further.”