A plane that can be flown without pilots is being tested out in preparation for its maiden flight in shared UK airspace later this year.
The plane, a BAE Systems Jetstream aircraft – The Flying Test Bed – is being put through its paces in a series of at least 20 flights over the Irish Sea and through UK airspace.
Although it will be pilot-free during the tests, there will be people on board able to take the controls if the need arises.
The aim of the trials is to demonstrate to regulators such as the Civil Air Authority and air traffic control that such aircraft, known as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, will be able to be used safely in UK airspace.
The tests are part of a long-term research project called Astraea – a name which stands for Autonomous Systems Technology Related Airborne Evaluation & Assessment.
This month’s trials will include “the world’s first use of autonomous, vision-based weather-avoidance routing and the first UK surrogate flight of a fully functional visual sense-and-avoid system which includes collision avoidance tests using a second aircraft”, a statement from Astraea explains.
The man responsible for the £62m project is Lambert Dopping-Hepenstal, BAE Systems’ engineering director.
He says there is potentially a large market for civil unmanned aircraft able to undertake tasks that are either too dull or too dangerous on which to risk lives.
“It would have been useful with the volcanic ash cloud, for instance, when we had no way of actually knowing what was happening, ” he told Sky News Online.
Mr Dopping-Hepenstal says the project involves seven major UK companies and more than 70 smaller companies and universities.
Regulators such as the Civil Aviation Authority and air traffic controllers are very much a part of the project too as safety, obviously, is key.
If all goes well, he imagines that there could be limited UAV flights within three or four years in areas just off the coast or at sea while they gained confidence.
But, he stresses, there is no need to hurry.
“After all, it has taken 100 years to get where we are today … and we are a lot less adventurous and a lot more risk-averse than we were then!”
As for pilot-free passenger planes – he does not expect that to happen for some time yet, if ever.