BAE Systems begins trials of unmanned aircraft system

BAE Systems has begun testing technology to enable conventional aircraft to fly safely without pilots, including weather-avoidance and emergency landing systems.

The defence and aerospace firm conducted its first live test at the start of May using a Jetstream 31 passenger aircraft fitted with autonomous flight software and new cloud-detection technology to help the craft avoid and respond to bad weather.

The trials are the latest development under the ASTRAEA programme, a joint project between seven aerospace companies operating in the UK, designed to speed up development and certification of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) for use in civil airspace.

‘This programme is in its last 10 months or so and the technology has matured to the point where we can actually start to fly it on surrogate aircraft,’ BAE’s engineering manager for ASTRAEA, Darren Ansell, told The Engineer.

Autonomous flight technology is most commonly associated with military drones and is not yet certified for flights in civil airspace, but could one day replace co-pilots on passenger aircraft if it can be proved safe.

‘The challenge has been understanding what you need to do to replace a human pilot,’ said Ansell. ‘How do you describe what they do in emergency situations such that you can write a specification for a computer programme?’

The autonomous navigation system on the retrofitted Jetstream is already far enough developed to enable the aircraft to fly without human intervention — although a pilot remains at the controls at all times during the tests should any problems arise.

The first trial, conducted on flights over the Irish Sea, tested the effectiveness of the video camera-based weather-avoidance system, which had previously only been used in a lab environment.

A second trial later this month will test an infrared system used to avoid built-up areas when making an emergency landing. Further trials in June will see these technologies connected to and controlling the craft’s autonomous flight system.

Future technologies to be trialled include systems allowing an unmanned aircraft to communicate with air-traffic controllers, and ‘sense-and-avoid’ software to prevent aircraft from colliding with each other.

Lambert Dopping-Hepenstal, programme director of ASTRAEA and engineering director of systems and strategy at BAE, said these additional systems were needed to make unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) suitable for use in civil aerospace.

‘We can’t set up a whole new infrastructure just for UAVs so one has to prove that you can work it in today’s world environment,’ he told The Engineer.

‘The whole principle of ASTRAEA is taking a complete systems engineering approach to the problem. There are many programmes looking at individual bits [such as] “sense and avoid” but ASTRAEA I think is unique in trying to understand the total problems.’

ASTRAEA is a partnership between AOS, BAE Systems, Cassidian, Cobham, Qinetiq, Rolls-Royce and Thales UK, created to speed up the certification of UAS technology as each company advances its own technology.