Armed with a degree in Business Studies from the University of Leicester, Neil joined GEC Marconi in 1986 to work on the Nimrod AEW, only to have the programme cancelled some six months later. Undaunted, he transferred to Marconi Underwater Systems then moved on two years later to a position at MEL, the Crawley-based defence arm of Philips. By 2000, after a decade of corporate turmoil, Neil was still in Crawley but was by now working for Thales UK.
“I’m a Programme Manager by trade,” he said, “mostly in Naval Electronic Warfare and Lightweight Airborne Radar programmes and I’ve worked in Thales’ ISTAR group since 2003.”
Neil was involved in supporting the assessment and pre-contract stages of the UK MoD’s Watchkeeper programme and, following contract award to Thales in 2005, became aware of the potential commercial applications for UAS in general. When colleagues mentioned the newly established ASTRAEA programme, he immediately recognised the commercial advantages of participation based on the company’s ISTAR and UAS domain expertise.
“Our ASTRAEA work is largely focused on developing a Sense & Avoid capability,” Neil explained, “and we’ve harnessed our sensors, architectures and algorithms to produce a compliant and certifiable S&A solution for UAS.”
Following extensive laboratory testing of this prototype system, it was installed on a surrogate UAS trials platform (an NLR Fairchild Metroliner) for flight-testing at Schipol Airport in the Netherlands. These on-going trials involve numerous encounter scenarios to stress performance boundaries and use a number of intruder aircraft in various environmental conditions and approach trajectories. Later, this S&A system will be installed on a UAV platform for advanced flight trials.
Thales’ other main interest in the ASTRAEA programme is on the regulatory side and Neil said they’re actively involved in on-going discussions and initiatives, both in the UK and Europe. He pointed to UAV airworthiness & safety regulations, and certification standards, as significant in the airspace integration problem-space and emphasised the importance of maintaining open lines of communication between industry and the regulators.
As to the future of UAS after ASTRAEA, Neil mentioned several areas of concern, among them harmonising European safety and airworthiness standards and public perceptions, but he said the technology is well on track for UAV operations in non-segregated airspace.
“Things will start slowly,” he predicted, “but as operational hours increase, missions accumulate and credibility is established, I see the general public recognising the enormous utility offered by UAS in surveillance and transportation. UAS have already been involved in protecting national infrastructure and saving lives – the Fukushima nuclear disaster is a recent high profile example.”
“Confidence is the key,” he concluded, “once UAVs have proved themselves as a safe, useful and economically viable alternative to manned platforms, they’ll become a fairly common sight in parts of the airspace.”
About Thales and Thales UK
Thales is a global technology leader for both the defence & security and the aerospace & transport markets. In 2009 the company generated revenues of £11.5 billion (€12.9 billion), with 68,000 employees in 50 countries. With its 22,500 engineers and researchers, Thales has a unique capability to design, develop and deploy equipment, systems and services that meet the most complex security requirements. Thales has an exceptional international footprint with operations around the world, working with customers as local partners.
Thales UK employs 8,500 staff based at 40 locations. In 2009, Thales UK's revenues were around £1.5 billion.