Unmanned aircraft project leads push to civilian drones
The "Pandora's box" of unmanned aircraft in the UK has been opened, according to the Astraea consortium.
Yet many technology and ethics issues surrounding civilian drones are yet to be solved, journalists at London's Science Media Centre were told.
The UK-led, £62m Astraea project - which has participation of the UK Civil Aviation Authority - is attempting to tackle all facets of the idea.
Later in November, they will carry out a crucial collision-avoidance test.
Unmanned aircraft or UAs is something of a new name for drones, which have gained notoriety principally in the theatre of war where remotely operated aircraft are used for surveillance or air strikes.
But the same technology put to use for civilian purposes is already a hot topic of debate in the UK and abroad, most recently surrounding their use by London's Metropolitan Police.
A recent report by the UK's Aerospace, Aviation and Defence Knowledge Transfer Network (KTN) found that applications for unmanned aircraft are said to be worth some £260bn - replacing costly or dangerous work done by manned planes, or opening up new applications that are currently out of reach.
Crop or wildlife stock monitoring, search and rescue, and check-ups on railway lines are some of the envisioned uses of UAs.
"All these things are currently done by manned aircraft, and they're done in currently quite hazardous environments," said Ruth Mallors, director of the Aerospace KTN.
"We want to use unmanned aircraft in these applications, but to be able to do that we have to demonstrate that were complying with the Civil Aviation Authority regulations, which are for manned aircraft.
"There's not going to be any new regulations - we'll comply with the regulations in place."
That is what brings about the technological challenge. The project involves sensors to be the "eyes" of a UA, the software to carry out manoeuvres and collision avoidance, and the aircraft themselves.
Points of debate
Plans for UAs envision that a pilot will always be on the ground controlling them, but they must have on-board technology that can perform in an emergency - in the eyes of aviation law - as well as a pilot.
"These things are going to have a level of self-determinism, particularly if you ever lose the communication link with the ground control," said Lambert Dopping-Hepenstal, Astraea project director. "They've got to be able to operate fully safely and take the right decisions.
"But we're not talking about unthinking drones, we're not talking about irrational and unpredictable behaviour, and we're not talking about something that gets itself up in the morning, goes off and does its own things and comes home without any human oversight."
The project has the participation of major contractors including BAE Systems, Rolls-Royce and Thales UK. But they are also working closely with the Civil Aviation Authority, who will ultimately control the licensing for UAs when they pass stringent safety tests.
Gary Clayton, head of research and technology for EADS Cassidian, another project partner, said the CAA's publication CAP722 is being held up internationally as a template for aviation legislation around UAs.
But Mr Dopping-Hepenstal said the project is aiming much further than the technology and safety legislation.
"What this programme is trying to do is look at this holistically," he said. "It's not just the technology, we're trying to think about the social impact of this and the ethical and legal things associated with it. You've got to solve all this lot if you're going to make it happen, enable it to happen affordably."
Chris Elliott, an aerospace engineer and barrister, is acting as consultant to the project. He told reporters that the licensing and privacy questions were points "to debate, not to pontificate".
"We have a very robust privacy regime now for aviation, and I don't see much very different. A lot of it comes down to what society thinks is acceptable," he said.
"I find it interesting that Google has got away with its [Streetview] because we love Google and we all use it. If this technology positioned to something that is good for us, that we like, then people will accept that kind of behaviour.
"Pandora's box is open - these things are going to fly. What we need is to engage everybody, the public and the specialists, with understanding the good and bad sides."
For now, though, safety is paramount. The Astraea project will carry out real-world collision-avoidance tests using three planes in two weeks' time, putting their autonomous control software through its paces and ensuring that unmanned aircraft can independently avoid a crash.