Two pilots sat in the cockpit of 16-seat BAE Jetstream 31 and did nothing as it flew for 500 miles from England to Scotland in civil airspace, controlled by an operator on the ground, according to news reports this week. The flight reportedly took place sometime last month. The on-board pilots handled the takeoff and landing, according to the BBC. The test was done by Astraea, a research group funded by the government and commercial companies, in cooperation with the National Air Traffic Services. In an online video, Astraea official Lambert Dopping-Hepenstal says the company has been working with authorities to develop a process for certifying and operating an unmanned Jetstream in the civil airspace.
A representative of BAE Systems, one of the companies involved in the project, said the flights were part of a series of tests helping flight regulators and NATS to understand how these flights work, and what they need to do to put a regulatory framework in place for manned and unmanned aircraft to share the airspace, according to the BBC. “It’s still very early days in terms of that regulation taking place,” the official said. Dopping-Hepenstal said he expects to see unmanned aircraft used in a variety of applications by the end of this decade. “In 20 or 30 years’ time, we won’t refer to unmanned aircraft, they will just be aircraft,” he said.