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Look no hands - first unmanned flight over British airspace

World-leading UK research programme paves the way for future civil unmanned aviation

The first flight demonstrating how an unmanned aircraft can operate in all UK airspace has taken place.


In April 2013, a Jetstream research aircraft completed a 500-mile flight through UK airspace while under the command of a ground-based pilot and control of NATS air traffic controllers.


The return journey1, which was staged in conjunction with NATS, used advanced sensors and on-board robotic systems to control the aircraft once in the air.


Cobham is part of a consortium of seven major companies leading the £62m project and is developing an automatic in-flight refuelling system that could allow unmanned aircraft to operate for extended periods of time, for example while undertaking SAR operations far out at sea.




The flight is one of a number of significant technology demonstrations2 conducted in recent weeks by ASTRAEA, a world-leading UK research programme into the future of civilian unmanned aircraft.  Others include a pilot simultaneously co-ordinating two small, unmanned aircraft in a simulated search and rescue (SAR) mission; a team of specially equipped vehicles replicating the demands of a secure and robust communications network whilst driving through remote and mountainous Welsh countryside; work to develop an automatic in-flight refuelling system that could allow unmanned aircraft to operate for extended periods of time for example while undertaking SAR operations far out at sea; and the conversion of an engine test bed into an intelligent and integrated power systems rig, successfully demonstrating the complete autonomous operation of an unmanned aircraft's  propulsion and electrical system from start up to shut down, including 'self-healing' to ensure the safety of the aircraft.


Automatic in-flight refuelling 

Unmanned Air-to-Air Refuelling


Read more about Cobham's Autonomous Air-to-Air Refuelling development.


A key focal point in programme has been the development of a Detect and Avoid (DAA) capability3 for unmanned aircraft that is able to reliably perform both separation provision & collision avoidance functions. A prototype system has been developed in cognisance of the overarching requirement for unmanned aircraft to operate in accordance with the rules and obligations that apply to manned aircraft. The system architecture has benefited from significant input from air safety experts as well as the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA).


These tests, a result of seven years research, will in future help British aerospace companies compete in the emerging civilian unmanned aircraft market.  


ASTRAEA (Autonomous Systems Technology Related Airborne Evaluation & Assessment) was created in 2006 to research and demonstrate how an unmanned aircraft could safely integrate itself into airspace shared with other aircraft.  It is unique in its holistic approach to the problem, addressing the human-side of the equation (legislation and the operational control of unmanned aircraft), not just the technical challenges4.  Indeed, it is likely that many emerging technologies could be used to make current manned aircraft operations even safer.



Image courtesy of BAE Systems


A consortium of seven major companies led the £62m project: AOS, BAE Systems, Cassidian, Cobham, QinetiQ, Rolls-Royce and Thales. The UK government through the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills has provided grant support - encouraging both industry and the regulatory authorities (the CAA) to ensure that the new technologies and processes realise their potential and demonstrate at least equivalence with manned aircraft safety standards.


To date more than 100 companies and universities have contributed to, and benefited from, the programme, including many small to medium sized enterprises5. ASTRAEA has filed 12 multi-faceted patents and earned four prestigious industry awards including the Institute of Engineering & Technology's Award for Innovation in Telecommunications.  


Commenting on the programme to date Business and Energy Minister Michael Fallon said,


"We welcome this pioneering flight at the end of the ASTRAEA programme. ASTRAEA has made significant achievements, placing the UK industry in a good position globally on unmanned aircraft and the development of regulations for their civil use."


Speaking to the way forward Simon Jewell, ASTRAEA Steering Board chairman said,


"In order to build on the momentum generated by ASTRAEA over the last seven years and preserve the unitary approach to supporting the evolving regulatory environment in this important area, the ASTRAEA consortium intend to continue to work closely with the regulatory authorities in the UK, Europe and globally."



The Flying Testbed 


Image courtesy of BAE Systems  


The BAE Systems' Jetstream, known as 'The Flying Testbed', is an aerial laboratory. It's a unique aircraft which has been developed to be flown by pilots or as an Uninhabited Air Vehicle (UAV). Racks of computers and control systems in the rear of the aircraft, together with satellite communications, mean it can fly as if it were a UAV without any input from the pilots. This year it will trial a range of new technologies to be developed under the ASTRAEA programme, including what is believed to be the world's first autonomous weather avoidance system, in addition to 'sense and avoid' technologies and an autonomous emergency landing system.







For more information, interviews and imagery contact:


Richard Knight

+44 (0) 7725 996 625


Jules Tipler

+44 (0) 7811 166 796


For more information about Cobham's technology development for ASTRAEA contact:


Richard Bourne

+44 (0)1202 857553


Greg Caires

+1 703 414 5310






The return journey from Preston, North West England, to Inverness, Scotland, was staged in conjunction with NATS (the UK's En-Route Air Traffic Control Service provider), with the pilot, based at Warton, Lancashire, using advanced sensors and on-board robotic systems to control the aircraft once in the air



11 aircraft have flown more than 80 flights and recorded in excess of 380 flight hours in the UK and mainland Europe.  800 miles have been flown by small unmanned aircraft.



Extensive DAA trials have been undertaken using prototype equipment installed on both fixed and rotary wing aircraft to exercise performance against representative 'intruder' types and demanding encounter geometries.  The DAA surrogate aircraft flights were conducted both in the UK and the Netherlands using a Metroliner trials platform provided by the Netherlands Research Laboratories (NLR). Trials data has de-risked development of a pre-production system for future trials.



ASTRAEA has generated a range of innovations that may find application not only in unmanned aircraft but also in manned aviation, and other sectors.  These include autonomous 'detect and avoid' systems capable of tracking up to 20,000 objects simultaneously to prevent collisions with other aircraft, terrain or man-made structures and intelligent power management systems that can 'self-heal' to ensure the safety of the aircraft. 



AOS, the SME partner in the consortium, is now working with Statoil ASA of Norway, the world's third-largest oil company, to introduce intelligent and autonomous systems into their offshore operations. The first target is offshore drilling, where current systems are highly human-centric. Statoil's exposure to ASTRAEA through AOS, including the work on autonomy and collaboration with the regulator, has influenced Statoil's thinking in this area, clearly demonstrating the spin-off benefits from the programme.




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