September 09, 2013
A private initiative to supply a test, evaluation, demonstration and experimentation facility for beyond-line-of-sight (BLoS) unmanned air systems (UAS) operations in the U.K. took an important step forward with the formal launch of the National Aeronautical Centre (NAC) Sept. 9.
The center pools unique resources — two large tracts of segregated airspace, totaling more than 5,000 sq. mi. (~13,000 sq. km) over land and sea, where unmanned aircraft can be flown at altitudes between 5,000 and 66,000 ft. (1,524-20,117 meters) without every sortie requiring a time-consuming portfolio of mission-specific authorizations.
Ray Mann, NAC’s managing director, believes the facility gives the U.K. a strategic national advantage in the race to win a significant slice of the international UAS market, estimated currently at around $4.7 billion. He predicts that, partly as a result of the Center’s existence, commercial flights of BLoS UAS in non-segregated airspace could take place in Britain within five years.
“For the moment it’s important, as far as the regulator is concerned, for all activity that flies beyond line-of-sight to be operating within segregated areas,” Mann says. “The NAC has enough capacity now, with these two centers, to be able to deliver the necessary services and accommodation of all size of UAS for at least the next 20 years. What we’ve produced here [is] an ability for industry to move forward and create and demonstrate their systems, and have those systems regulated.
“We’re beginning to package capability around the NAC, so that if anybody comes with anything, we can deliver them the combination to suit,” he says.
The center combines the established range created around the West Wales Airport, which has hosted UAS flights since 2001, with three new blocks of segregated airspace — D064A, D064B and D064C — to the north of Newquay Cornwall Airport, above the sea between the Cornish peninsula and Wales’ southern coast. The West Wales airfield is inside restricted airspace so flights can take off and land as test schedules require; flights to and from Newquay will, for the time being, transit from the airfield to the restricted airspace using a temporary segregation of the necessary airspace; Mann says that “work will have to take place in the future for us to annex the airspace availability.” Newquay boasts one of the U.K.’s longest runways — 2,744 meters — ensuring the NAC is able to provide flight opportunities for larger UAS that may not be able to use West Wales’ much shorter apron.
The decision for West Wales and Newquay to join forces was made at last year’s Farnborough air show. “We met at Farnborough and fell in love,” as Mann jocularly says. There are no plans to apply for another airspace block to join the two tracts of space together, though permissions can be obtained for remotely piloted aircraft to transit between the two restricted areas, opening up the possibility of flying UAS from one airfield and landing them at the other.
West Wales has provided a base of operations for flights of the Thales-led Watchkeeper program — the British Army’s tactical UAS — presently awaiting its release-to-service from the Military Aviation Authority. Trials with a Watchkeeper UAS flying in uncontrolled airspace will begin in next summer. West Wales also is home to a Selex ES team testing the company’s Falco aircraft there, emphasizing the NAC’s availability to customers outside the U.K.