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'Optionally manned' spy plane to fly this summer

Brit version lacks robo option: Being used above UK?

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A make of spy plane known to be in use by the British forces is now confirmed to have an "optionally manned" version, allowing it to be crewed - for legal reasons, or to save bandwidth - or to fly itself, as desired.

The DA42 Twin Star. Credit: Diamond Aircraft

Ideal for the misanthropic parachuting enthusiast.

The aircraft in question is the DA42 Twin Star, at least two of which have been bought for Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance (ISTAR) missions by the British MoD. The light twin-engined plane is thought to be operated by 39 Squadron, a tri-service unit which also handles Reaper hunter-killer drone aircraft above Afghanistan.

The DA42 is mostly supplied in conventional piloted form, but now US aerial crazytech firm Aurora Flight Sciences has announced that it is putting the finishing touches to a version which can fly itself. According to Aurora:

Aurora’s DA42M-OPV [Optionally Piloted Vehicle], named “Centaur”, adds an extensive suite of propriety electronics and software that retains all of the manned mission capability while also enabling the capability to conduct missions with no pilot onboard. This “optionally piloted” configuration is unique to the Aurora version of the DA42M.

“The Centaur has roughly the same payload and range performance as the MQ-1 Predator UAV,” says Aurora chief John Langford, “but it has several important advantages. First, it can be flown with a pilot onboard, which will facilitate operation in the National Airspace System. Second, it has two engines, which gives greater reliability and safety. Third, the Centaur is easily reconfigurable so it can carry a variety of payloads. Finally, it has extremely low operating costs. We see it as a crossover product with enormous potential in many markets.”

British firm DO Systems was touting an optionally-manned Twin Star to UK government customers last year, but if Aurora are right it would appear that they haven't yet delivered any.

Aurora, for their part, say that the "Centaur" will make its first flight this summer and will be delivered from 2011. Its first customer will be NASA, who plan to use it for surveying the Greenland ice pack.

Blighty, meanwhile, is known to make use of various aircraft for surveillance missions in support both for military campaigns abroad and counter-terrorism efforts at home. Apart from the Reaper and Twin Star, the Army Air Corps is known to have specially-equipped Beechcraft King Air spy planes and RAF Islanders are also believed to contribute, especially above the UK.

The great advantage of unmanned aircraft - particularly ones using fuel-efficient engines like the Twin Star - is endurance, with such planes able to stay up for more than 24 hours at a stretch. Unmanned operations also involve no risk to crews operating above hostile local residents.

As Langford points out, however, the ability to carry a crew can be useful. Pilots are still legally required in most Western airspace, and where bandwidth is tight - where satcomms must be used because there is no line of sight between base and aircraft, for instance - it can be useful to carry analysts on board so as to avoid transmitting huge volumes of sensor data.

Bandwidth wouldn't be an issue above the UK, where a ground station could be put anywhere, but the legally-required pilot would still have to be aboard. Unmanned operations, for some time to come, will still be mainly for operations in overseas warzones: but Aurora - who are in a good position to know - seem to state categorically that the UK's Twin Stars have no such capability yet.

It would seem that either the 39 Squadron DA42 spyplane operators are unconcerned about endurance, risk and so on - or perhaps that they are actually using their planes above the UK at least some of the time. Military ISTAR air units have long been tasked in support of special-operations forces, counter-terror secret police and MI5 personnel operating in the UK: originally mainly in Northern Ireland, and nowadays in certain parts of the mainland. ®

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