Robot aircraft take to British skies

image copyrightBAE
image captionThe Jetstream aircraft will fly itself along a route between Inverness and Lancashire

Robot aircraft are to be tested in UK airspace to help refine systems that control autonomous planes.

BAE said it would be carrying out 17 flights, using a converted Jetstream 31 capable of flying itself.

Human pilots will handle take-off and landing, but the craft will be autonomous as it navigates 300 miles (482km) from Lancashire to Inverness.

The trial will assess piloting software as well as sensor systems that monitor clouds and other aircraft.

To pilot itself, the Jetstream aircraft will use data from satellites as well as on-board identification systems that log radio signals broadcast by transponders on other planes.

In addition, the Jetstream is fitted with a camera that can see other air users even if they are not emitting warning signals.

This camera also surveys the skies around the craft to spot bad weather or heavy cloud, allowing the aircraft to adjust its route to avoid turbulence and other "challenging conditions".

On its autonomous flight, the aircraft will follow a route through non-congested airspace at an altitude of about 15,000ft (4.6km).

The journey is expected to take about 90 minutes.

Maureen McCue, head of BAE's research and technology, said the trials were "exciting" and it was working with the UK's National Air Traffic Services to determine how well the autonomous aircraft handled sharing the skies with human-piloted craft.

"We are working towards the possibility of flying our own unmanned systems in a highly controlled environment in the UK," she said.

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