An unmanned BAE Systems Jetstream aircraft known as 'The Flying Test Bed' is currently undergoing extensive flight trials before its maiden flight in shared airspace this year.
As part of the £62m UK Autonomous Systems Technology Related Airborne Evaluation and Assessment (ASTRAEA) project, the aerospace programme is co-funded by AOS, BAE Systems, Cobham, EADS Cassidian, QinetiQ, Rolls-Royce, Thales, the Technology Strategy Board, the Welsh Assembly Government and Scottish Enterprise.
Trials are scheduled to take place this month and will demonstrate the world's first autonomous, vision-based weather-avoidance routing, and the UK surrogate flight of a fully functional visual sense-and-avoid system, which includes collision avoidance tests using a second aircraft.
BAE Systems engineering director Lambert Dopping-Hepenstal said the use of a surrogate uninhabited air vehicle allows prototype autonomous systems developed by the ASTRAEA team to be evaluated safely in the air.
The trial is also aimed at demonstrating to the regulators, including the Civil Air Authority and air traffic control service providers, that such aircraft can be used safely in UK airspace.
"Racks of computers and control systems in the rear of the aircraft mean it can fly as if it were a UAV without any input from the pilots," Hepenstal added.
"The ASTRAEA system is capable of preventing mid-air collisions with other aircraft using a 'sense and avoid' system, detecting and avoiding bad weather conditions and relaying air traffic control instructions to the remote pilot via satellite to the ground control station."
The surrogate UAV, along with the ASTRAEA system on-board, from now and until the winter, will be put through its paces in a series of about 20 flight tests over the Irish Sea and through UK airspace.
Image: BAE's Jetstream aircraft is expected to make its debut pilotless flight in late 2012. Photo: courtesy of BAE Systems.