Southampton University pilots spyplane design course

A demonstration of a robot plane than can fly on autopilot

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In a nondescript building on the Southampton University campus, is a wind tunnel once used to develop the pioneering aircraft which defended Britain during the Second World War.

Clambering up a staircase to the control room I pass a large painting of a Spitfire, and a plaque commemorating Southampton's links with its designer R J Mitchell.

Today, the aircraft trembling in the wind-flow from the giant fans represents cutting edge research of a very different kind. It does not need a crew, for a start.

Southampton University is already a leading player in the field of robot vehicles; later this year it will become the first campus in the UK to run a course specialising in the design and build of a new generation of robotic craft.

Drone wars

Watching the experiments, Professor Jim Scanlon explained that although this work has direct links to unmanned military aircraft, such as the Predator drones currently deployed in Afghanistan, the key for his team is to make the technology available at low cost.

"The machines used by the military cost millions [of pounds] to develop; we believe we can provide unmanned platforms for a few thousand," he said, "We're looking at better ways of using consumer technology to reduce cost whilst retaining a wide capability."

The new unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) Masters design course will see students creating and building a UAV from scratch to take off, for a specific mission requirement. Future courses will include the development of land and space vehicles.

In a nearby development lab, Matt Bennett showed me another of the prototypes which have already flown successfully.

Remote control
Predator drone on a mission in Afghanistan Military UAVs such as the US RQ-1 Predator cost millions of pounds to build

Having graduated from Southampton, he has returned to help develop the new course.

On the bench in front of him is a miniature aircraft, similar to those flown by enthusiasts every weekend around the UK.

The tiny circuitry, constructed for around £3000, enables the aircraft to take off, fly its mission, and land, with one click of a mouse.

He says there are many potential uses for the technology.

"We can see these platforms being used for a range of research projects which involve aerial photography, mapping, or the monitoring of our weather systems," says Mr Bennett.

"They're even robust enough to play a role in search and rescue along our coastline," he adds.

The University's decision may be timely. According to its own estimates, the worldwide market for unmanned aircraft and vehicles is predicted to grow from $6.6 billion (£4.1bn) today to $55 billion (£34bn) over the next decade.

In the UK, which leads the European sector, there are already 14 companies producing 28 different designs.

Down the road at the National Oceanographic Centre, there are more potential customers for cheap, crewless technology.

Beneath the skies

The design team here created the Autosub, a long-range, autonomous underwater vehicle.

It has already made more than 300 successful survey trips to the ocean floor, and beneath the ice of Antarctica.

But there are limits to the number of sorties that Autosub can make, and it is too precious to lose

Pete Stephenson from the NOC believes low-cost robots could extend the range of missions it contemplates.

"What if the new generation of subs are much smaller; small enough to be dropped from aircraft over oil spills to monitor the effects of a clean up operation?" he muses.

"Or [are] able to go beneath the ice, and then to hibernate as the ices closes in, until we need them to carry out their research in areas which we cannot reach."

Back at the University, the research team are looking ahead to their next test flight; 75 years ago, Mr Mitchell's Spitfire prototype was being readied for its first flight at what is now Southampton International Airport.

He might not have foreseen planes which flew themselves, but he surely would have approved?

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