Among the great challenges facing engineers today is that posed by the desire to open up civilian airspace to unmanned aerial systems (UAS). As great challenges go, it doesn’t have the ring or glamour of fusion power or hypersonic flight. This is partly because the technology already exists: UAS are flown extensively by the military in the ‘organised airspace’ of theatres of war. The challenge, however, is to convince the world’s aviation regulators that the technology can be packaged in a way to make it safe for a pilot to ‘fly’ one, maybe two, maybe many aircraft at once, in the same skies as those used by passenger jets, all from a control station on the ground, and even from a different continent.
It is almost inconceivable to think that any regulator would allow a UAS, flown out of the line of sight of its pilot, to come anywhere remotely near an airliner full of people. But if it were proved that the command and control links were reliable, many believe one of the most exciting new markets for aircraft systems worth many billions of pounds could be opened up. That is the goal that British aerospace engineers are now working towards. And if they achieve it, this emerging sector could open up a range of exciting new opportunities for aerospace engineers.
Applications range from fisheries protection, security and border patrol to agriculture, pipeline and rail inspection and perhaps the biggest opportunity of all: the multi-trillion-pound air-cargo market.
Much of the progress in UAS technology continues to be made in the military sphere. But as defence budgets shrink, businesses are looking to apply it more broadly. BAE Systems is working on several large-scale UAS projects primarily for military applications, including the Taranis unmanned combat air system that is due to make its first test flight later this year, and the Telemos project, which is a joint proposal with the French contractor Dassault for a European medium-altitude, long-endurance UAS.
But according to Chris Garside, BAE’s Future Combat Air Systems engineering director, while the military applications for the technology have long been clear, the opportunities for applications in civilian aerospace are only just emerging. He said it was now up to industry to work with the regulators to bring about the future of civilian unmanned flight.