A plane that flies itself and Virgin Galactic star at Farnborough Air Show
Jason jetted to the Farnborough Air Show to see the ASTRAEA unmanned aircraft, Virgin Galactic's space plane and lots more in this gallery.
The Jetstream plane I'm looking at was originally bought in 1983 to be used by a Scottish whisky distillery, but thanks to some upgrades installed by a British-led programme devoted to the next generation of unmanned aircraft, it's at the cutting edge of British aviation.
The programme is called ASTRAEA (Autonomous Systems Technology Related Airborne Evaluation and Assessment) and I am at the Farnborough Air Show on an industry day to see it displayed publicly for the first time.
The technology inside the plane mean it can fly itself without the need for humans to get involved, which may not sound like anything new, but this goes way beyond today's autopilots. At the moment, when anything unexpected happens, autopilot systems switch off and hand back to the pilots. The goal of this programme is to do away with the need for pilots to be at the front of the plane entirely, including emergency situations.
There's a camera mounted in the cockpit of the Jetstream that looks out the front window -- the quality of the lens was the most important consideration when it was chosen, rather than the number of megapixels. Underneath the aircraft is an infrared camera, which is used if the plane has to make an emergency landing without manual intervention, and a couple of other antennas hook up the plane up to various flight communications systems.
One side of the passenger cabin is given over to a bunch of boxes that make the plane fly itself. The plane uses the tech to avoid other planes and changes course to avoid stormy weather in what BAE Systems, one of the companies behind the consortium, says is the first of its kind in the world.
Most of the gear inside is off-the-shelf kit, including a couple of PCs that do most of the grunt work. The PCs have eight-core chips, although only 1.5 or so of those are actually used. The system was specced out in 2008 -- I am told that if it was specced today, the whole thing could fit into a laptop.
A couple of pilots are needed up the front of the Jetstream to comply with safety regulations -- at the moment, pilotless planes, or UAVs (Uninhabited Air Vehicle) as they are known in the industry, are not allowed to fly in British airspace. If anything were to go wrong while the Jetstream is flying, a red button in the cockpit returns control to the pilots.
Those regulations are the main reason for existence of the ASTRAEA programme. The idea is to prove to the authorities that flying unmanned aircraft is safe, so that the industry can be developed. Should that happen, BAE Systems says that it's likely the first uses for the technology will be in aircraft operating over the sea to get the public used to the idea, which could happen in the next 5-10 years, generating an industry that's forecast to be worth billions.
Will we ever see a commercial airliner with no onboard pilots? It's hard to see that happening. The Victoria Line on the London Underground has been automated for about 40 years, but still have drivers in each carriage. Would you trust a plane with no pilot? Thought not.
Also of interest on show at the BAE stand in Farnborough are a couple of technologies that are available now that put a display in front of military pilots. One is the Q-Sight 150, a helmet mounted with a see-through eye patch. This shows all kinds of information that would normally be on the cockpit controls, but without the need for the pilot to distract themselves by looking down. Here's a montage showing the helmet and what you can see through the eye-patch at the top left.
Another, more advanced version is called the Striker Helmet, which allows pilots to see through the walls of the plane. Cameras mounted in the plane look at the bumps on the helmet and use the information to work out which way you are looking and display the correct view on the visor of the helmet.
If you look at the floor or behind, you can see through it and get a sense of the ground passing underneath, together with various bits of flight info. Like this:
Outside of the BAE stand, the runner-up for star of the show is the Airbus A380 just for its sheer size, but the winner has to be Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo, which will one day take paying customers into space. It looks distinctive, if a little cramped. It's being shown off with its wings upright, demonstrating the 'feathering' technique that Virgin Galactic says will make re-entry smoother by increasing drag, meaning the craft doesn't need a heat-shield to get back to Earth safely.
Have a click through the images above for a bit more detail, and if you're attending the public days of the Farnborough Air Show, let me know what you're most looking forward to in the comments below, or on our jet-powered Facebook page.