Pilotless passenger planes to take first test flights over UK

The aircraft will have pilots on board - but will be flown by computers (Image: British Aerospace)

A few days from now, a Jetstream aircraft will take off from an airfield in Warton, Lancashire - and then the pilots will take their hands off the controls.

The flight, from British Aerospace's airfield, will be the first of 20 unmanned flights over UK airspace.

The pilots will be racks of computers which can steer the aircraft by themselves.

There will be human pilots on board - but the computers take the controls will sense weather and other aircraft using cameras, and hopefully steer out of the way.

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The test flights - led by a group known as ASTRAEA (Autonomous Systems Technology Related Airborne Evaluation & Assessment); are designed to test the safety of pilotless flight over UK airspace.

The flights could pave the way for pilotless passenger aircraft.

At present, the control systems used in 'drones' or UAVs are never used in passenger planes - although take-off and landing are frequently assisted by automated software.

Lambert Dopping-Hepenstal, the Engineering Director at BAE Systems responsible for the ASTRAEA programme said: "The BAE Systems Jetstream Flying Test Bed has been configured as a “surrogate UAV’ where the on-board pilots can take their hands off the controls and hand over control to the on-board system developed by the ASTRAEA team."

" Racks of computers and control systems in the rear of the aircraft mean it can fly as if it were a UAV without any input from the pilots."

He continued: “The ASTRAEA system is capable of preventing mid-air collisions with other aircraft using a ‘sense and avoid’ system, detecting and avoiding bad weather conditions and relaying air traffic control instructions to the remote pilot via satellite to the ground control station."

"The weather avoidance system will use sophisticated image processing techniques to detect and avoid clouds and is just one of the new capabilities being tested onboard the Jetstream.”

From now and until the winter, the ASTRAEA system on-board the Jetstream will be put through its paces, in a series of at least 20 flight tests over the Irish Sea and through UK airspace.

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