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MoD proposes Salisbury Plain spy-plane droid playground

Skies have eyes as 'bugger off' replaced by Watchkeeper

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The UK Ministry of Defence wants to expand the airspace it uses for training flying-robot surveillance operators from the British Army. Drone aircraft formerly flew mainly above traditional army exercise areas on Salisbury Plain, but next-gen kit will need to be higher up and further away from the ground action if training is to be realistic.

"Unmanned aircraft are proving to be a great asset in improving the effectiveness of deployed forces, particularly in the intelligence and surveillance roles," according to Commander Dennis Ryan from the MoD.

"The new generation of equipment has considerably improved performance and sensor capability that requires integration into military training exercises."

This would be done by allowing the new aircraft to fly at much greater slant distances - up to 15 miles - from simulated wars taking place on Salisbury Plain. The MoD proposes to establish a new block of segregated airspace which would be activated when drone training was taking place. At present, manned and unmanned aircraft can't share airspace over the UK. The areas on the map would be periodically reserved for robots between flight levels 80 and 160*.

MoD map of the proposed UAV segregation zones

Spy planes to train mainly south of the plain.

The next generation of Army kit that the MoD are on about is specifically the Watchkeeper drone, an upgraded version of the Israeli Hermes 450s already bought to replace the former, ill-fated "bugger-off" Phoenix. The Army's drone jockeys have been trained up on Hermes 450 largely overseas, and the robo spy-planes are thought to have gone pretty much directly from Israel to the warzones of Southwest Asia, but Watchkeeper will be at least partially UK-made. Also, in the longer run the Army may not have quite such wide opportunities for learning on the job overseas, so one can see why they want the new UK airspace.

That said, it's quite possible to imagine that the Afghanistan conflict will last long enough for new autopilot tech to be developed, allowing UAVs to fly in non-segregated airspace.

In any case, the MoD have hired the controversial spinoff trough-scoff company Qinetiq - which also has the Watchkeeper test contract - to run a public consultation on their plans to fill the Salisbury skies with flying robots.

Local residents probably won't be much affected, with the Watchkeepers most likely very quiet and unobtrusive at the proposed heights. Private pilots in light aircraft would typically operate below the robo-reserved altitudes anyway, and shouldn't be much bothered. As for worries about rogue droids crashing on hapless residents below, the danger would seem to be rather less than that of yesteryear, when the famously erratic Phoenix was flying in the local area.

Reassuringly for those worried about being ogled from on high by military spy-eyes, the MoD says that "imagery produced will only be employed for operational training purposes, and will be subject to the 1998 Data Protection Act".

Those wishing to give the government a piece of their mind nonetheless - or to see a slightly better quality version of the map - should click here. ®

*Roughly 8000 and 16000 feet in non-pilot terms.

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