By Glenn Pew, Contributing Editor, Video Editor
A jointly funded industry/government initiative in the UK is operating a Jetstream 31 commuter plane in flight trials to demonstrate autonomous flight systems and flight via a remotely based pilot, while also carrying two onboard safety pilots. The twin-engine turboprop aircraft will be flown in trials during the next few weeks from Warton Aerodrome in Lancashire, England. A pilot on the ground will operate the aircraft in conjunction with onboard systems. The tests aim to demonstrate the systems' ability to navigate the aircraft, avoid others, and respond to air traffic control requests relayed to the ground-based pilot through the aircraft. Two pilots will fly in the aircraft as safety crew to observe operations and take positive control if needed. Developers don't expect these tests to lead directly to remotely piloted passenger operations, but they do consider that as a possible outcome of the technology's evolution.
The program is being operated by the Autonomous Systems Technology Related Airborne Evaluation and Assessment (ASTRAEA) group. Participating interests include the British government, Rolls-Royce, QinetiQ, Cassidian, and BAE Systems, among others. Researchers expect the technology to lead to a reduction in flight operation costs as pilotless aircraft take on more roles in traffic monitoring, border patrol and police surveillance, with possible forays into more dynamic and dangerous missions like fire suppression. While passenger flights may not lose their pilots for some time, researchers currently believe commercial cargo flights may lose them sooner if the technology proves reliable and safe through similar tests and smaller-scale real-world application. For passenger flights, researchers believe it is more likely that such autonomous systems will first serve as a backup for a live pilot flying in the aircraft.