With the recent announcement that the FAA’s drone integration plans face more delays, Europe is way ahead of the U.S. There are several programs aimed at integrating pilotless drones into its airspace. For example, test flights are now underway in the UK using a Jetstream 31 twin-engine turboprop, controlled from the ground, but flying with two safety pilots on board.
The Autonomous Systems Technology Related Airborne Evaluations & Assessment (Astraea) team brings together an industry-government partnership group, which includes a range of government agencies and six representative companies from industry. The Jetstream contains not only datalink connections for the ground-based “pilots” but also experimental “sense-and-avoid” equipment for airborne testing.
Rather than starting with a legislative mandate and fixing a deadline for implementation, the UK program has set up a research agenda with a more open-ended schedule. Astraea’s Jetstream test program is working on “virtual certification,” and as BAE Systems engineering director (and Astraea program director) Lambert Dopping-Heppenstal explained, they’re taking an aircraft with well-known baseline parameters and asking, “What are we going to take out of that if we convert it to an unmanned aircraft, and what have we got to add in?”
Testing begins with relatively safe operations, such as overwater flights for fisheries protection. Astraea plans to complete this first phase of test flying early next year, with a loose target date for full integration of unmanned aircraft “before the end of the decade.”
With characteristic British understatement, Dopping-Heppenstal commented that the FAA target of full integration by drones in September 2015 is “possibly on the optimistic side.”