Droneliner, the future is now
A business aircraft has flown 800km without pilot in civilian airspace. Of course, there was a pilot, but miles away as he controlled the first drone liner. This is another milestone for drone aviation and the possibilities we could envision for the future. The flight from Warton in Lancashire, to Inverness in Scotland by a British Aerospace Jetstream is being hailed as a milestone by members of ASTRAEA, a £62 million UK research consortium aiming to develop the technology that will allow civilian aircraft to share their airspace with drones – some of which could be as big as airliners. The flight happened back in April but the details have only just been revealed. It took off with a regular pilot and test engineers on board. But once the aircraft was straight and level, the pilot handed control to the ground pilot and sat back for the ride, only taking over again for the landing. The aircraft – a 19-seat propeller-powered business plane – was not merely on autopilot. It tested the detect-and-avoid technology, which drones in civil airspace will need to have to ensure they keep their distance from other air traffic and automatically undertake collision-avoidance maneuvers. The algorithm that runs this technology has been thrashed out with air-safety experts at the UK Civil Aviation Authority who have ensured it sticks to the “rules of the air” understood by pilots worldwide. To test the system, fake objects to avoid were introduced to the flight computer, says Lambert Dopping-Hepenstal at BAE Systems, programme director for ASTRAEA. “Because we were in shared airspace, all the sense-and-avoid manoeuvres we tested used synthetic targets. Any changes to the flight route were communicated to the ground-based pilot by air traffic control, with the pilot then instructing the aircraft to amend its course accordingly,” he says. What the conclusion does not say is that if pilots are concerned about this breakthrough as this would certainly in the future cast a doubt onto their job description. Furthermore, it is known that drones do not make human errors, which have been responsible for many recent accidents.