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UAVs still far off from Europe's civilian airspace

FARNBOROUGH, England -- Much like the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, the United Kingdom's Civil Aviation Authority is not too keen on the idea of drones flying next to civilian airliners.

And much like their U.S. counterparts, U.K. aviation and defense companies are sinking plenty of resources into studies to quell the public's and the regulators' fears.

It seems, though, Europe is lagging behind the U.S. in its pursuit of opening civilian airspace to unmanned aerial vehicles. The head of a European aviation consortium said Thursday here at Farnborough International Airshow he doesn't expect UAVs to get the green light until the end of this decade. U.S. aviation officials hope to open airspace by 2015.

Seven European aviation companies aligned under the Autonomous Systems Technology Related Airborne Evaluation & Assessments (ASTRAEA) program in 2006 to tackle the challenges associated with UAVs flying in civilian airspace such as how to sense and avoid jet liners and pick out emergency landings without a pilot onboard.

ASTRAEA has mounted a host of sensors typically found on UAVs to a manned turbo prop to test these challenges. Lambert Dopping-Hepenstal, ASTRAEA's director, said their engineers have collected a great deal of data and made serious progress in figuring out how UAVs would handle airspace littered with civilian jets and airliners.

ASTRAEA engineers tested how a UAV would use an infrared camera to make sure a field didn't have people nearby in the event the UAV needed to autonomously find an emergency landing zone. Dopping-Hepenstal said that using this technology made the UAV more capable at ensuring the landing strip was safe versus a human pilot. The question, then, is what level of IR sensor would the CAA mandate a UAV carry to be certified to fly in civilian airspace?

Sense and avoid technologies to avoid mid-air collisions have also been studied. This is a major hang up in the U.S. and one of the biggest fears for those who oppose allowing UAVs into civilian airspace. Opponents worry if a UAV goes rogue and loses its downlink to a human pilot it could cause an airliner carrying hundreds of people to crash. The case for UAVs was not helped when a U.S. Navy drone lost touch with its pilot this year at Patuxent River Naval Air Station and crashed in Maryland.

Pilots and data collectors with ASTRAEA will fly 20 test flights in 2012 over the Irish Sea. Each flight will cover about 750 miles at 15,000 feet. The pilots onboard only fly the plane during take offs and landings. Dopping-Hepenstal said he expects CAA to first open portions of civilian airspace over bodies of water to "gradually make the public feel more comfortable."

ASTRAEA will finish its work in 2013, but there's not exactly a clear next step forward toward opening airspace. CAA regulators spoke with ASTRAEA, but the studies and tests were not funded or sponsored by CAA. Dopping-Hepenstal told reporters that more work will need to be done after 2013, but the data collected by ASTRAEA will help regulators see the potential of introducing UAVs into new swaths of previously restricted airspace.

"This isn't a revolution; it's an iteration from manned vehicles," Dopping-Hepenstal said.

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