European Space, Defense Agencies Study New Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Service

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PARIS — The European Space Agency (ESA) and the European Defense Agency (EDA) have issued parallel contracts to investigate the use of unmanned aerial vehicles over European civil airspace to provide coastal-zone and critical-infrastructure surveillance information delivered via commercial telecommunications satellites.

ESA and EDA have each issued contracts valued at about 400,000 euros ($548,000) to different consortia to sound out prospective government and corporate users of a service that could be started only after numerous flight-safety and radio-frequency issues have been resolved.

The two agencies had sent out a common request for proposals and then selected the two top candidates. ESA has selected a consortium led by Indra Espacio of Spain and including AT-One of Germany, satellite fleet operator SES of Luxembourg, GMV-Portugal and Ineco of Spain. The EDA contract is with a consortium led by EADS Defence and Security and its sister company, Astrium Services, and including QinetiQ of Britain, IABG of Germany and Isdefe of Spain.

Aside from the topic’s relevance to European homeland security agencies, the project illustrates the expanding mandate of the 18-nation ESA, which historically has viewed itself as an organization devoted to science and technology development. It also is an example of an ongoing effort by ESA and EDA to find common ground on issues that ultimately could include space surveillance and other dual-use civil/security matters involving space assets.

“There is no new technology that needs to be developed for this,” said Amnon Ginati, head of ESA’s integrated and telecommunications-related applications department. “What we are doing with EDA is to look at the issues here and then to determine the position of potential users. Who are the potential users of such a service? That is one of the questions we have as this program is intended to be user-driven.”

ESA’s Integrated Applications Program was created to stimulate use of existing space technologies among customer sets that currently do not know what satellites can do. Another project is designed to employ Earth-observation satellites to track bird migrations and warn European airports about potential bird-strike threats to aircraft.

Once the results of the two six-month unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) studies are in hand, ESA and EDA will determine whether to finance a demonstration project involving a UAV flying over European territory and sending video data via satellite to customers.

Numerous companies and agencies in North America and Europe are preparing for the day when UAVs will have demonstrated sufficient safety to be permitted into civil — sometimes called “nonsegregated” — airspace, as distinct from air corridors reserved for military use.

In addition to having to clear safety thresholds before being permitted to fly over civilian populations, UAV flight operators will need to secure radio spectrum dedicated to communications between the UAVs and ground controllers. Proposals are being prepared for the World Radiocommunication Conference of international frequency regulators, scheduled for 2011, on protected aeronautical frequencies to be reserved for unmanned aircraft.

One study cited by Thales Alenia Space during a May 2009 conference on UAVs organized by ESA and EDA in preparation for their study contracts forecasts that within 20 years, unmanned aircraft, which today are used almost exclusively for military operations, will find a large civil/commercial market. One market is replacing manned aircraft for wide-area Earth-observation missions for which satellites are ill-equipped because of revisit frequency or other issues.

In a presentation to the ESA-EDA conference, Joseph Barnard of Barnard Microsystems Ltd. of London cautioned that, for the moment, any operator of a UAV in civil airspace likely would need to purchase a $10 million insurance policy for liability coverage.

EADS Defence and Security said that for the demonstration phase of the project it expects to propose its medium-altitude, long-endurance UAV using satellite access provided by Astrium Services. The EADS-built Harfang UAV is already in use by French defense forces in Afghanistan.

Ginati said that before any demonstrator is funded, the two sponsor agencies must identify a clear customer set. “We also need to determine exactly what kind of UAV we want to use for the demonstration. The main point is that we are not proceeding without user interest.”