RPAS insertion into civil airspace: a new chapter in aviation history

A Heron unmanned aerial vehicle is prepared for launch at Kandahar Airfield, AfghanistanThe development of Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems originated in a defence context. However, the utilisation of RPAS for broader civil and security purposes has significant commercial potential. Possible uses include firefighting; highway control; electricity line, critical infrastructure and border surveillance; environmental protection surveillance; management of emergencies; and even goods transport. Here, MOD DCB examines transferable technology in the civil airspace sector.

San Javier Air Base in Murcia, Spain was recently selected to host the DeSIRE project (Demonstration of Satellites enabling the Insertion of RPAS in Europe) to conduct trials and demonstrate that satellite communications are suitable to operate Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS) and integrate them into civil airspace.

The DeSIRE project is funded by the European Space Agency (ESA) and the European Defence Agency (EDA) within an initiative to support the utilisation of RPAS complemented by satellites for commercial and governmental applications.

To undertake this project, the Spanish-based global consultancy and technology firm Indra is leading a European industrial consortium formed by AT-One (Germany and the Netherlands), SES ASTRA (Luxembourg), Thales Alenia Space (Italy and France) and CIRA (Italy).

Test flights

DeSIRE has undertaken a series of test flights to demonstrate the role of satellite communications in integrating civil and military airspace RPAS flight Beyond Line of Sight (BLOS). The concepts and applicable procedures were defined in precursor feasibility studies. In particular, a flight completed on 24 April provided a generic terrestrial and maritime surveillance service, demonstrating the dual use of RPAS. 

In the presence of the Chief of Staff of the Spanish Air Force, Francisco Javier García-Arnaiz, an aircraft without a pilot on board took off from San Javier and completed a six-hour flight in both civil and military airspace. The operation was timed to coincide with civil and military flights operating from the base, which shares its facilities with MurciaAirport.

After take-off the aircraft switched from its Line of Sight data link to its satellite data link, capable of operating Beyond Line of Sight, and started its operational mission in segregated airspace, sending to the ground via satellite the signals from its on-board sensors.

The RPA then climbed to 20,000 feet, entering airspace class C, managed by AENA, the Spanish air navigation service provider, from its Barcelona control centre. The pilot of the RPA, located at the ground control station, followed all the indications issued by AENA’s air traffic controllers, acting like any other civil or military aircraft. The difference was that the pilot was not on board and radio communication with the control centre was transmitted from the aircraft to the operator via satellite.

During this phase of the flight, a manned aircraft from the SpanishAirForceAcademy approached the RPA, simulating frontal and 90º collision trajectories. The pilots of the two aircraft followed the separation instructions issued by air traffic control, demonstrating the safe operation of remotely piloted aircraft even in an emergency situation such as the separation of two aircraft on a collision course.

Running parallel to the EDA-ESA initiative, the first flight demonstrating how an unmanned aircraft can operate across all UK airspace has taken place.

April proved to be a popular month for RPAS civil airspace integration as a BAE Systems Jetstream research aircraft specially adapted to fly in unmanned mode successfully completed a 500-mile trip from Warton in Lancashire to Inverness in the north of Scotland under the command of a ground-based pilot and the control of NATS (National Air Traffic Control Services) air traffic controllers.

This was part of a series of flight trials designed to prove the technology needed to allow the safe and routine flying of unmanned aircraft in UK airspace being conducted under the £62 million industry-led ASTRAEA (Autonomous Systems Technology Related Airborne Evaluation & Assessment) programme, which focuses on the technologies, systems, facilities, procedures and regulations that will allow autonomous vehicles to operate in UK airspace.

Lambert Dopping-Hepenstal, BAE Programme Director for ASTRAEA, said: “The work being done here, and hopefully continued into the next phase of the ASTRAEA programme, will likely impact all of us in the next five, ten, twenty years as unmanned aircraft and associated technology develop and become a part of everyday life.

“These latest trials help prove the technology we need to routinely operate unmanned aircraft in our airspace and also help the regulators develop the framework which the aircraft can operate in.”

Situational awareness

Throughout the DeSIRE project exercise in Murcia, the data from SACTA, AENA’s air traffic control system based on secondary radars, was available to the pilot of the RPA in the ground control station, enabling him to improve the situational awareness of nearby aircraft with greater detail and precision than an on-board pilot would have enjoyed. A radar located on board the RPA was also used to detect surrounding traffic and the data was transmitted to the pilot through the satellite link, with the aim of defining and testing the air traffic control and operation procedures applicable to a remotely piloted aircraft and of evaluating the safety of the satellite link and the reaction capacity of the aircraft’s ground pilot, both in routine operation and in emergency situations.

All the information collected in these tests will be analysed and compared with the safety requirements being established by the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) and the operational requirements being set by EUROCONTROL.

The RPA was granted an Airworthiness Experimental Certificate (AEC) by INTA, the Spanish aerospace technology institute, to guarantee the safety of the system, under the envisaged operational conditions. AENA and AESA collaborated on the part of the flight taking place in civil class C airspace and on the definition of the tests and of the applicable air traffic control and safety procedures.

The civil future of RPAS

The take-up of RPAS exploitation for civil and security use would enable the dual-use logic to take full advantage of RPAS cost reduction. However, current legislation does not provide a harmonised framework in Europe for enabling RPAS to fly in civil airspace, in particular Beyond Line of Sight. This is curtailing their application in the civil sphere, thereby making it difficult for the industry in Europe to develop the technologies and equipment that will make their use possible in the future.

The demonstration undertaken within the DeSIRE project is aimed at establishing an agreed set of requirements that could serve as a basis for the future definition of the regulatory framework for RPAS air traffic integration across Europe.

The European Commission also recently published a report describing the economic value that remotely piloted aircraft systems can bring to Europe.

The document identifies the 20 RPAS-related projects currently being financed under the 7th Framework Programme for Research and Innovation and highlights issues that have to be addressed. It also confirms the Commission’s commitment to support these efforts through Horizon 2020, the new financial instrument for research and innovation, which will be launched in 2014.