A plane that can fly without pilots in the cockpit is being trialled over the Irish Sea in preparation for the first unmanned flight over UK airspace in 2013.
Defence giant, BAE Systems is trialling the technology on board a modified Jetstream passenger aircraft, with technicians on board to ensure the computer systems work.
The trials will pave the way for the first flight of an unmanned plane in UK airspace next year with a BAE Systems UAV prototype, the Mantis.
Unlike drones or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) used by the military – which are controlled on the ground by a satellite link – the Jetstream plane taking part in trials can pilot itself with sophisticated computer systems and sensors.
The purpose of the trials, which will run throughout the year, are to test the plane’s new technology that can detect and avoid bad weather and potential mid-air collisions.
The flights are also trying to show the UK’s aviation regulator, the CAA that it is safe to fly unmanned aircraft in UK airspace.
The £62 million research project, named ASTRAEA, is a UK-led consortium whose seven members include aerospace firms QinetiQ, Rolls Royce and the French defence and security group. BAE Systems is leading the research.
For those worried about the prospect of unmanned planes being used on commercial flights, there are no such plans for the technology – at least for now.
BAE Systems wants to open up the technology for civil operations that could include long search and rescue missions, monitoring volcanic ash cloud, surveillance and coastal patrols.
If successful, it could mean manned and unmanned aircraft sharing the same UK airspace in future.