Unmanned aircraft flies in UK civil airspace

15 October 2015

Air traffic controllers at NATS managed the first flight by an unmanned aircraft in controlled and unsegregated airspace, in what is being hailed as a UK first and major milestone in the development of Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) for civil and commercial use.

The first flight took place on Wednesday 30 September, with Thales’s Watchkeeper UAS taking-off from West Wales Airport and embarking on a three hour flight, part of which took a UAS into civil controlled airspace for the first time.

There it was controlled in exactly the same way as a traditional manned aircraft, despite the fact that the pilots were sat on the ground in a control room at the airport.

Until now, the use of large unmanned aircraft has been limited to highly segregated areas. This trial flight, the second of which is scheduled for next week, and the associated safety, regulatory and procedure design work, could now pave the way for the future use of drones inside controlled airspace.

Unmanned air freight, search and rescue, telecommunications relays and environmental monitoring with UAS the size of conventional airliners are all future possibilities.

Simon Hocquard, NATS Operations Strategy Director, said: “What we set out to prove is that it is possible to safely integrate and control a UAS in non-segregated airspace with conventional aircraft. Once you do that you open up enormous potential future opportunities for unmanned flight that go well beyond the kind of lightweight UAS that we’re all familiar with.

“Safety is always our top priority so a huge amount of work has gone into getting to this point and much more will be needed, but it’s a major milestone for the industry and shows that the UK and Europe are leading the world when it comes to the development of UAS and its integration into controlled airspace.”

The trial flight forms part of Project CLAIRE, a collaboration between Thales, NATS, the Dutch National Aerospace Laboratory NLR, with support from the MOD and CAA and was joint funded by the SESAR Joint Undertaking.

Air Commodore Pete Grinsted, Head of Unmanned Air Systems Team at the MOD’s Defence, Equipment and Support organisation, said: “This is a landmark achievement for UK aviation history and the Watchkeeper programme, and was only possible thanks to a collaborative approach involving Thales, CAA, NATS and the MOD.

“The successful flight is the result of months of systematic planning to ensure Watchkeeper was safely controlled by UK Air Traffic Control agencies at all times. This is also an exciting step on the path to safely integrating military and civilian unmanned air systems into civilian airspace over the coming years.”

NATS has been working with unmanned aircraft for more than 40 years and holds some of the world’s most respected expertise in unmanned flight management. It was instrumental in developing and validating the current procedures for their use in the UK.

Simon Hocquard continues: “There are still regulatory and procedural considerations to take into account and we recognise that there is some way to go before unmanned aircraft are fully integrated into controlled airspace; however, this is a very exciting development.”

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