The world's first airport for unmanned aircraft is opening in rural Wales and officials say it could be the first step to getting human and robot -piloted craft together in the same airspace.
The United Kingdom's Civilian Aviation Authority has just granted permission for both the West Wales Airport in Aberporth and a 500-square mile airspace to be dedicated to unmanned aircraft. General aviation pilots can still fly through the region, as well as Royal Air Force pilots who conduct training missions nearby.
The Welsh government hopes the drone airport and airspace will draw commercial firms who are currently banned from testing their aircraft in the United States except in restricted military airspace.
"We can use the airspace to start proving the integration and manned and unmanned systems," said Carl Davies, project manager at the West Wales UAV Centre and Qinetiq, a UK-based defense contractor.
The 4,100-foot runway will be used to run test flights of the British Army's new Watchkeeper WK450, which is being built by an Israeli firm to conduct reconnaissance, surveillance, weather and other targeting missions. Until now, the drone has been flying over the Irish Sea. The new airspace extends 40 miles inland and extends over several rural Welsh communities with a population of about 10,000 people.
The airfield has also been used to test the SELEX Galileo "Falco," an Italian-made unmanned airplane, which is now being used by the Pakistan military to patrol border areas with Afghanistan, according to news reports.
Davies and others say they expect the new Welsh airport to attract companies who want to test of drone aircraft for commercial and scientific applications as well as established military missions. Environmental monitoring is especially high up on the list.
"We can do forestry, we can do whale-watching, we can do pipeline surveys or even peat bog monitoring," Davies told Discovery News.
The erosion of peat bogs releases large amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, as well as robbing the region of an important natural sponge for floodwaters.
A similar mix of drone and general aviation aircraft have been flying in Australia for the past three years in pilot program known as "Smart Skies." Based at a rural airfield outside Brisbane, contractors tested new radar systems and flew Boeing's ScanEagle drone alongside small airplanes. The results of the trial are being used to develop new flight rules in Australia.
Here in the United States, flying drone aircraft in commercial airspace has been more difficult. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) limits drone aircraft to operating under 400 feet and within an operator's line of sight. There are some experimental airspaces available in New Mexico, Oregon and Oklahoma, but FAA officials must be notified about flights weeks ahead of time.
FAA officials told a conference of unmanned systems that they hope to have new flight rules for unmanned aircraft ready by 2025. Supporters of the UAV industry say that's too long.
"Industry wants to see it before then," said Paul McDuffee, business development executive for InSitu, a Boeing subsidiary. "We can't wait for 2025."