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Flying without pilots: Britain's robot plane

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It is the ultimate flying machine: a robot plane which can take off, land, and even avoid bad weather without human intervention.

But far from being a scientific dream, one is currently flying in the skies above Britain as part of a test programme.

The engineers behind the technology say it represents the future of air travel and could even be used on passenger jets to allow pilots to fly alone.

Until now, unmanned aircraft have been limited to military use in war zones such as Afghanistan, while police in Britain have also used small remote controlled models fitted with surveillance cameras. Both usually require pilots on the ground to fly the aircraft remotely.

The new system, however, can fly civilian aircraft unaided. Unlike the autopilot system used in most passenger aircraft, it can fly without the need for pilots in the cockpit.

On-board cameras scan the sky for potential hazards and the robotic pilot can recognise other aircraft, hot air balloons and even parachutists before taking action to avoid them.

The cameras also detect clouds, allowing the system to identify and avoid potentially dangerous weather conditions.

"It is doing all the things a human pilot would be doing," said Lambert Dopping-Hepenstal, engineering director of systems and strategy at BAE Systems, which has developed the system, and programme director of the consortium conducting tests on the pilotless plane.

"The level of autonomy can be gradually increased. The system flies by itself on a preprogrammed course until it detects something is wrong. Then it suggests manoeuvres that an operator using a laptop on the ground can confirm or reject.

"If the communication link goes down or the operator is not paying attention, the on-board system will take action to keep the aircraft safe.

"In an emergency, it can use infrared cameras to identify safe sites to set down aircraft by itself and can look for body heat to make sure a landing area is clear of living things."

The system is being tested in a converted Jetstream passenger aeroplane fitted with a bank of computers, switches and relays that can take control of the plane, which is being flown in an 80-mile wide area of airspace over the Irish Sea, off the coast of Preston.

Pilots on board fly the aircraft into the test area before switching over control to the computer system, which has been developed using technology BAE has used in its military unmanned aircraft.

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