A Small Piece of History Flying Unmanned Air Systems on Thorney Island
Thorney Island is a peninsula that juts into Chichester Harbour in West Sussex. It is separated from the mainland by a narrow channel called the Great Deep. A coastal public footpath, part of the Sussex Border Path encircles the island. which has a disused airfield that was originally built in 1938 for use during World War Two. Today, Thorney Island is home to 12th and 47th Regiments Royal Artillery, and a Army Reserves Royal Signals Squadron.
In 2010, 47 Regiment Royal Artillery re-rolled from its Air Defence trade to become an Integrated Unmanned Air System unit as part of Op ENTIRETY. The Regiment operates three very different Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS), all of which provide live imagery during flight which can be delivered to the supported arm immediately via a downlink it can also be edited and disseminated following the sortie in information packs.
The Hermes 450 Tactical Unmanned Air System (TUAS) is a fixed wing aircraft with a wingspan of 10.5 metres with a 16hr endurance it uses a runway to Take off and Land (TOL) and as a UOR is only operated overseas. We also operate the Desert Hawk 3 (DHIII) and Tarantula Hawk (T-Hawk) Mini Unmanned Aircraft System (MUAS). The DH3 is a fixed wing aircraft, hand launched and skid recovered used to provide company level UAS support from forward locations. T-Hawk uses an inducted fan to gain lift and resembles a flying dustbin or BBQ stand. Its function is to provide a hover and stare capability to assist the Royal Engineer Counter Improvised Explosive Device Route Proving and Clearance units by conducting close observations of vulnerable points, choke points and other areas of interest.
As air users we conform to the same MAA policy that regulates all military flying The air systems we use may not be manned but do represent a risk to life in the air and to those personnel on the ground. The greatest risk to life associated with UAS a mid air collision primarily caused by human errors by either busting airspace or procedural errors by controllers. Although all current UAS have cameras they cannot conduct LOOKOUT and therefore cannot ‘see and avoid’ like manned aviation.
All three systems require trained, qualified, current and competent aircrew to fly them. Amongst other continual refresher training subjects, there is a requirement for operators to maintain currency and prove competency in a similar way to manned aviation. This is a burden on both time and resources, especially when some of the systems can only be flown overseas. Since 2010 we have been flying MUAS, T-Hawk and DH3, on suitable training areas in the United Kingdom. Current UK policy directs UAS to fly in segregated airspace in the UK this is generally situated over the larger military training areas. MUAS are routinely flying on Salisbury Plain, Otterburn, Sennybridge and Stanford training areas.
In late 2011 it was decided to conduct a feasibility study into flying both MUAS from Thorney Island to reduce the burden on the very busy SPTA and nights out of bed for the soldiers. The Island itself offers a suitable amount of real-estate for MUAS operations and furthermore would enable valuable continuation training to take place. The task to conduct the study fell to the Brigade Flight Safety Officer to seek guidance and approvals through CAA, MAA, ACAS and JHC whilst the Regimental Operating Standards Cell (OSC) conducted the detailed planning of the live flying which commenced with an initial map recce. MUAS are required to fly within an Unmanned Air Vehicle Operating Area (UOA) which is currently prohibited to other Aviation. The Safe Flying Area (SFA) is an area inside the UOA within which the UAS must remain, its boundary is determined by the maximum distance that the Aircraft will glide / fall in the event of a propulsion failure. The higher the operating altitude the larger the UOA must be to accommodate the anticipated glide trajectory. A maximum operating altitude of 300ft Above Ground Level (AGL) was deemed suitable for flying both systems. This relatively low altitude required a distance of 900ft between the UOA and the SFA when flying the DH3 fixed wing system.
Although the majority of buildings are massed to the north of Thorney Island there is also an estate on the southern tip of the Island. This greatly reduced the possible area of the UOA and therefore the SFA within it and thus, at this stage, the option to fly DH3 was, unfortunately discounted. Nevertheless, because T-Hawk uses an inducted fan to fly its glide potential is drastically reduced and it became apparent that live flying was feasible.
With the necessary authorisation granted through the Delivery Duty Holder a Statement of Range Practice (SORP) was produced to inform all interested parties including JHC, the local coastguard, Air Operations at Fleetlands in Gosport and other air users such as the Model Aircraft Club and Paraglider Club that regularly use Thorney Island to fly.
NOTAM where requested from the CAA – Airspace Utilisation Section and the Military Low Flying Ops Sqn for the T-Hawk flights scheduled for September with subsequent flying in November and the flying passed without any issues. This was the first time that the British Army had flown a MUAS in the United Kingdom in airspace that wasn’t directly above a military range. The ability to fly T-Hawk on Thorney Island means that T-Hawk Commanders, Pilots and Operators no longer have to travel to Salisbury Plain in order to remain trained, qualified, current and competent on the system. Our development of the T-Hawk live flying has not yet finished. The Regiment is having a Ground Sign Observation Lane constructed, with assistance from the Royal Engineer Counter Improvised Explosive Device (CIED) Team which will provide a realistic topography for the crews to operate over.
Now that 47 Regt RA is able to safely fly T-Hawk over Thorney Island it offers us the ability to further enhance and develop our operational capability without the added pressure of long transit time to SPTA. As our collective skills develop so does our ability assist with the identification of possible and probable IEDs thereby further assisting with the mitigation of risk of life or injury to our soldiers.