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World's first in-flight demo of multiple unmanned aircraft autonomy system

QinetiQ has successfully completed the world's first flight demonstration of a system capable of controlling and autonomously organising multiple unmanned aircraft.

The successful flight trial, part of a programme of work under contract to the UK Ministry of Defence, was conducted to support the concept of using a package of self-organising unmanned air vehicles (UAVs) under the control of an operator flying in a fast jet.

Central to the QinetiQ demonstration was a BAC1-11 twin-jet aircraft that has been converted into a surrogate UAV. In addition to controlling the BAC1-11 'remotely', an operator directed a package of simulated UAVs at a strategic level and carried out a simulated ground attack on a moving target.

An autonomy computer using agent-based reasoning software was responsible for the self-organising of the UAV package at a tactical level and the operation of communication systems, sensors and weapons. The trial is a world first in demonstrating such a complex system in flight which greatly reduces the workload of the human operator.

During the flight trial the BAC1-11 flew and operated as if it was unmanned, being directed from a command station designed for use in a fast jet. Throughout the demonstration, flown from Boscombe Down airfield in Wiltshire at the end of October, a flight crew was retained for safety monitoring and control during takeoff and landing. This enabled the flight to take place largely in uncontrolled airspace over South West England negating the need for special clearance or the use of segregated airspace.

Before flights began the entire UAV system was thoroughly tested in a QinetiQ simulation environment at Bedford. This enabled the flight crew and trials team to rehearse the first real sortie 'flying' from a 'virtual' Boscombe Down using all the software and hardware that was installed in the real aircraft. This approach has realised significant cost savings through the reduction in flying hours and associated support costs.

Andrew Sleigh, Group Managing Director of QinetiQ's Defence and Technology Sector, said: "This demonstration is a wonderful achievement for the team. The success is an important step in proving that complex autonomous decision-making technologies are ready to move from a simulated world to realistic flight conditions. Ultimately this work could lead to a single human operator controlling teams of highly autonomous unmanned vehicles to carry out complex missions while reducing the risk to manned aircraft."

QinetiQ's Tornado Integrated Avionics Research Aircraft (TIARA) is currently being equipped with a UAV command and control interface and this will allow further flight trials during which the package of real and simulated aircraft (including the BAC1-11) will be commanded by the fast jet pilot while in flight. This next series of trials is expected to take place in early 2007.

In addition to developing military UAV technologies QinetiQ is actively exploring the potential civil and commercial applications of UAVs. The ability to direct multiple autonomous unmanned aircraft could deliver benefit in a range of scenarios, including a coastguard rescue, a disaster relief operation or during environmental monitoring.

Ben White | alfa
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