THE FIRST flights of ‘pilotless’ planes are taking place over the Fylde coast.
The Jet Stream aircraft, dubbed ‘the flying test bed’, has made 12 test flights from BAE Systems’ factory at Warton packed with technology which allows it to be flown without a pilot, it was revealed at the Farnborough International Air Show yesterday.
It is manned with two pilots and a third man operating the kit from the ground and taken out to a remote part of the Irish Sea to carry out tests where it is flown hands-free.
Engineer Rod Buchanan, who works on the aircraft, said it was testing technology which allowed the aircraft to avoid objects, bad weather and make emergency landings without human contact.
He said it had already carried out 12 test flights and expected to complete a further 20 test flights this year in “segregated air space” cleared by Warton’s air traffic control operators.
Mr Buchanan added: “We have another aircraft which flies out of Blackpool Airport which we set up to intercept each other from a distance of 20 miles away, then about 15 miles away we switch the technology on.
“It’s a bit like throwing two rocks at each other, although there is always a 500 feet vertical separation between aircraft, so there’s never any danger of a collision. What it allows us to show is the technology on the Jet Stream will work to avoid the other aircraft.”
He said the tests being carried out this week were designed to prove to industry regulators, the Civil Aviation Authority, that unmanned air vehicles (UAVs) developed by BAE can be operated safely.
The Jet Stream, formerly owned by an Irish distillery, is the product of the ASTRAEA programme – a £60m project to develop the technology which will allow UAVs to operate safely.
Mr Buchanan, who works on the ASTRAEA programme from the Warton factory, said it was likely to take anything up to a decade before pilotless planes could operate over UK skies.
The Jet Stream is on display at this week’s Farnborough International Air Show where BAE Systems has announced its ambition to start test flights of its UAV, Mantis, by next year.