Of the myriad autonomous UAV programs that have been conducted around the world, few have had the years of research dedicated to them like the ASTRAEA (Autonomous Systems Technology Related Airborne Evaluation & Assessment) initiative. After reporting on ASTRAEA back in 2007, the scheme ran for a further five years and tested all manner of systems over thousands of flying hours. Now one of the program participants, BAE Systems, has refitted a Jetstream 31 autonomous test aircraft previously used in that research as a fully-fledged flying testbed for a series of trials aimed at proving the safety and reliability of satellite-communications based autonomous aircraft technologies.

BAE Systems intends to run a series of 17 flights from the firm's facility in Warton, UK. These will demonstrate the proficiency, maturity, and low-risk performance of BAE's autonomous aircraft systems when controlled remotely by a satellite-communications link, as well as the capabilities of the company's latest aircraft and cloud avoidance camera technologies.

Two engineers will be aboard the Jetstream to continuously monitor and judge the operations of systems on the aircraft in conjunction with air traffic control experts from the National Air Traffic Services (NATS) on the ground. Each of the test flights is slated for 1.5 hours, flying at around 15,000 ft (4,500 m) along an approximately 300 mile (480 km) route from Warton to Inverness in Scotland through relatively low-traffic airspace.

The aircraft will take off and land with a pilot and co-pilot at the helm, however once the Jetstream is aloft and traveling through controlled airspace it will be allowed to fly itself. A flight test observer on the ground, along with an licensed unmanned air vehicle pilot, will monitor the flights using satellite communications.

Fitted with a special aircraft identification antenna used as part of a monitoring system able to identify other aircraft by their transponder signals, the Jetstream also has a camera that looks out the cockpit window. These two systems, working in tandem, feed information to the on-board computers to allow the aircraft to avoid potential hazards. Even if no signals are being transmitted by an aircraft on a potential collision course, the camera is able to warn of impending disaster. It even has the ability to identify various cloud types and, if necessary, help to map out a course that avoids bad weather.

According to BAE Systems, the cost for these trials will amount to around £400,000 (US$500,000), but the results will be essential for directing the path for future unmanned aircraft programs within the company, along with the viability of further UAV testing in the UK. The company also believes that the technologies being trialed may, in the not-too-distant future, be brought to market as flight aids for air crew in commercial and military aircraft.

"Our priority as always is to demonstrate the safe and effective operation of autonomous systems and together with NATS we are working towards the possibility of flying our own unmanned systems in a highly controlled environment in the UK," said Maureen Mccue, BAE Systems' Head of Research and Technology for the military aircraft and information business. "The trials are an exciting time and will give us technology options that could be applied to our own manned and unmanned aircraft as well potentially enabling us to take some new unmanned aircraft technologies to market."

Source: BAE Systems

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