CHELTENHAM, United Kingdom — BAE Systems and the U.K. Ministry of Defence brought six classified unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) programs out of the shadows earlier this year, showing several in public for the first time.

BAE’s Advanced Technology Demonstration Centre at Warton in northeastern England has developed several UAVs with an eye toward making them fully autonomous, easily linked to other platforms, well-behaved in military and civil airspace, and possessed of an open system architecture. The systems could autonomously gather and transmit imagery, and serve other surveillance and reconnaissance roles.

One early design for a semi-autonomous UAV had a novel configuration that included a blended-wing body of advanced low-cost composites, to be flown by an advanced flight-control system that relied on air-pressure sensors mounted flush to its skin.

This design developed into the 5.5-meter, 140-kilogram Kestrel. In March 2003, the Kestrel became the first jet-powered UAV to fly in U.K. airspace, under civil registration and approved by the Civil Aviation Authority.

After flight trials revealed difficulties controlling the Kestrel, the development team turned to exploring fully autonomous flight.

Development of the next vehicle, a stealthier and more agile UAV designated Raven, was completed in nine months. This design was intended to help shape the now-canceled Future Offensive Air System , a Royal Air Force exploration of the possibility of replacing its Tornado fighters with a deep-strike UAV.

The fully autonomous, jet-powered Raven first took wing in December 2003, and a second prototype flew in Australia 11 months later. Next came the Corax UAV technology demonstrator, intended to explore intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance roles, and survivable designs.

Completed in 2005 with Raven’s center body design and a larger composite wing, Corax uses Raven-derived flight-stabilization technologies and is autonomous from takeoff to landing. BAE demonstrated the flight-control system’s flexibility by flying Raven, then removing and reconfiguring the controls, installing them in Corax, and launching a second flight the same day.

Under the High Endurance Rapid Technology Insertion (HERTI) effort, BAE next put Raven and Corax technologies and lessons into a new set of UAVs built around airframes provided by the Polish firm J&AS Aeronew. Built on the J-5 airframe, the HERTI1-D demonstrator went from conception in June 2004 to first flight in Australia in less than seven months. It has a wingspan of 8 meters, a ceiling of more than 6,000 meters, endurance of more than 25 hours and an operational radius of more than 1,000 kilometers.

A second HERTI UAV, the 1-A, was built on the ultra-light J-6 airframe for greater payload and endurance. It features redesigned landing gear, a longer 12.6-meter wing and a BMW twin-cylinder piston engine. Last August, HERTI-1A launched from a civilian-operated airfield in Campbeltown, Scotland, and flew the first fully autonomous UAV mission in U.K. airspace.

BAE plans to have up to 10 HERTI1-As, depending on how fast J&AS Aeronew can turn them out. They are envisioned as low-cost alternatives to other high-endurance UAVs under development. They likely will be powered by four-cylinder turbo-charged Rotax engines, and at least one likely will be used to test a Selex lightweight synthetic aperture radar.

Selling HERTI

BAE will develop and market the HERTI and related technologies through a new arm of its Air Systems Division, the Autonomous Systems and Future Capability (Air) branch.

Andrew Wilson, sales and marketing director for the new unit, says it aims to give customers what they want, not simply what’s state-of-the-art.

“We have looked at the capabilities of programs out there in the marketplace, sure, but more importantly, we have spoken to the operator base in an effort to find out what their requirements and challenges are, what gives them chronic indigestion,” Wilson said. “We fed our discussions [with users] into our own operational analysis and came up with a series of key capability elements.”

He said those boiled down to autonomous UAVs carrying largely autonomous payloads to capture high-quality imagery, so BAE will offer UAVs that can fly completely unassisted from takeoff to target to landing.

“We see as very significant the comments back from operators that have driven us to providing levels of autonomous operation that we haven’t really seen elsewhere,” Wilson said. “These are not remotely piloted vehicles — they are truly autonomous operating air vehicles.”

These autonomous UAVs necessitate different kinds of training for users, he said: “The skills needed to be taught for these vehicles are more in mission planning and monitoring, not in control of a joystick.”

The imagery payload will be the Image Collection and Exploitation system, which uses an open systems architecture developed for the Hawk Advanced Jet Trainer and Typhoon fighter. Once aloft, the system can accept changes to preprogrammed missions; for example, to get a better view of a target, or to examine an unexpected one.

Imagery can be sent from the UAV with low demands on bandwidth, and also is permanently recorded for detailed examination and analysis when the UAV comes home. The Image Collection and Exploitation system can make some of its own decisions.