Civilian Use of Drones in the EU - European Union Committee Contents


Civil use of Drones in the EU: visit to Cranfield University, 22 October 2014

As part of the Committee's inquiry into the Civil use of Drones in the EU, a Committee delegation visited Cranfield University to discuss issues of relevance to its inquiry, in particular the technologies being developed to facilitate the integration of RPAS into unsegregated airspace, and to view first hand an RPAS in operation. This delegation included Baroness O'Cathain (Chairman), Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe,Lord Fearn; the Earl of Liverpool and Lord Wilson of Tillyorn. The delegation was accompanied by Alicia Cunningham (Clerk) and Paul Dowling (Policy Analyst)

Professor Philip John, Pro-Vice-Chancellor, Aerospace, Transport and Manufacturing, started the day by giving an overview of Cranfield University's history of involvement in developing and testing unmanned aircraft. He made particular reference to the university's work on the "Demon uninhabited air vehicle" when highlighting some of the difficult issues faced by developers of RPAS. For example, he referred to a scale of nine 'technology readiness levels' and how moving from levels 4-6 to level 9 was the most difficult and expensive part of any RPAS development. He also explained how the university complied with UK regulatory requirements and safety protocols when testing the Demon UAV at a military site in Scotland.

Professor Antonis Tsourdos, Head of the Centre of Cyber-Physical Systems, gave a presentation about his Centre's research in developing 'detect and avoid' technology for RPAS. He explained how regulatory drivers, such as the need for safety and transparency, and business needs, such as affordability and public acceptance, were setting the technology targets for his team. He explained how existing traffic collision avoidance systems (TCAS) work on manned aircraft, and what modifications would be required for it to be used on an RPAS system. Going one step further, he said that developing fully autonomous RPAS presents further challenges in that such systems would have to mimic human pilot behaviour when responding to emergency situations.

Pete McCarthy, a former RAF pilot working at the Safety & Accident Investigation Centre at Cranfield University, told the Committee of the potential uses of RPAS as a tool for investigating crash sites. He said that the Malaysian Airlines aircraft which was shot down over the Ukraine was a good, if terribly unfortunate, example of where an RPAS could have been used to determine whether the crash site was safe for human investigators to enter, thereby possibly preventing unnecessary physical and psychological trauma. An RPAS could also have taken photos soon after the crash, thereby providing some record in case there was any tampering with the evidence on site.

David Gardner and Gordon Dickman, Cranfield Aerospace, spoke about their company's experience as an SME in aviation. They explained the work they had done as part of the Project Ultra consortium (an EU funded project as part of the Seventh Framework Programme for Research and Development) and how this work was subsequently subsumed into the European RPAS Roadmap.

Professor Sir Peter Gregson, Vice-Chancellor, joined the Committee in watching an outdoor demonstration of an RPAS flying over a mock aircraft crash site. A pilot controlled an RPAS (a unit weighing approximately eight kilos, equipped with a camera sitting on a rotating arm, and with eight rotors) using a handheld control as it flew in blustery conditions over and around the crash site, while a separate operator controlled the camera. Committee Members were able to see live, high definition footage of the crash site on a handheld screen as the RPAS was flown over it.

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