UK defence corporation BAE Systems is preparing to run the first unmanned flight through UK civil airspace, to demonstrate that UAVs could be safely flown over Britain.
The firm is using a modified BAE Jetstream 31 (nicknamed “The Flying Test Bed”) — a small twin-turboprop airliner with 18 seats. It will have pilots on-board, but they can take their hands off the controls and hand it over to the racks of computers and control systems in the aircraft’s rear.
The autonomous plane uses nifty techniques like vision-based weather-avoidance routing to bypass clouds. A planned test will feature a second aircraft, to see if the Jetstream’s visual sense-and-avoid system can avoid a collision.
Right now, the plane is undergoing a series of flight trials over the Irish sea. The first maiden flight of a surrogate UAV (that’s what BAE is calling an unmanned plane with pilots on hand incase anything goes wrong) in UK shared airspace will happen later in 2012.
BAE says that it will perform at least 20 trials throughout the year, to demonstrate to regulators like the Civil Air Authority that unmanned vehicles, will be able to be used safely in UK airspace.
If successful, unmanned planes in the UK could be used for tasks like search-and-rescue operations and coastal patrols.