Large pilotless “drones” could soon be flying over the Westcountry.
The unmanned aircraft are to be given clearance to fly in and out of Cornwall if plans to expand airspace around the county’s airport are approved.
The airport wants to use its coastal location and long runway to create a test centre for the unmanned air systems (UAS) which are said to be the future of aviation.
Local flyers have raised some concerns over the remotely controlled planes – weighing in at more than four tonnes and flying at 275 knots – flying over populated areas
Cornwall Newquay Airport says the drones are as safe as conventional aircraft and will only pass over one or two remote properties.
Under the proposals which have just been launched, the aircraft would take off and fly out to sea where they would undergo testing in a designated “danger” area.
They would be restricted to a new enlarged exclusion zone to keep them away from piloted planes.
Andy Ormshaw, manager of air traffic services, told the Western Morning News it was a great opportunity for the airport and “perfectly safe”. “It is tough to find somewhere to test these things, which need a segregated airspace,” he added.
“Companies are interested in coming here because of our superb location and long runway. We can take them out over the sea far away from everybody. We are not going to fly over built up areas though maybe over individual homes.
“This is the future. It is going to happen. We either embrace it or end up looking back in 10 years having missed out. I say let’s get going, have some enthusiasm and put Newquay on the map.”
Expanding the fly zone around the airport is intended to bring in cash to the airport, which costs Cornwall Council millions in subsidies each year.
It is estimated there could eventually be around 24 drones – which can be up to 15 metres long – taking off or landing every day by 2030, some 6,000 movements a year.
It turn the Aero Hub into a research and development centre for the drones, which are one day expected to handle a range of jobs now done by pilots.
The airport says the successful development of civil-use unmanned planes will be of “long-term economic benefit” and ultimately be good for the environment.
This would come as the more fuel-efficient UAS replaces conventional aircraft for activities such as maritime surveillance, search and rescue, crop spraying, woodland management and police surveillance.
The latest move to boost income for the airport comes after the council lifted its £5 passenger levy in a bid to lure low-cost airline Ryanair back.
Newquay Cornwall Airport wants to create a small area of segregated airspace to provide connectivity to an established danger area where the testing and evaluation will take place.
This airspace is just over 10 nautical miles north of the airfield, formerly RAF St Mawgan.
A new six mile circle around the airfield, rising to 5,000 feet, would feed into a narrow corridor starting at 2,500 feet to allow the planes to fly to the offshore test zone.
Other air traffic would be banned from this space when it was designated as “hot” for a few minutes around take-off and landing.
The target is to attract civilian operations and, though military testing could take place, the airport said there would be no question of “armed drones” in the air.
A local flyer contacted the WMN with concerns that when the airspace is activated air traffic could be delayed and diverted into skies above nearby towns and villages.
The airport is confident it can easily handle traffic without any problems. John Brady, of the Light Aircraft Association (LAA) – one of the organisations consulted by the airport – said he will not be objecting to the expansion.
However, he did say the LAA would be hoping to minimise the amount of time airspace was closed.
“It will be a nuisance but I don’t think it is a big deal,” he told the WMN.
“These UAVs are big aeroplanes, about the size of a Hawk military trainer. You can’t just fly them around the UK willy-nilly. But they are certified to the same standards as normal planes and they fly all around the world doing all sorts of things so they should be just as reliable.
“This is not to protect people on the ground but to keep people in other aeroplanes out of the way.”
Cornwall Councillor John Fitter said people were relaxed about the plans.
“People know about drones and know they are proven,” he added. “No-one can say there will never be a situation but I am confident they are just as safe as a plane with a pilot at the joystick.
“The only people who have had a moan are the general aviation community worried they will be impeded.
“But the close down time will only be a few minutes so I don’t think this will be a problem."
New laws needed as UAV use increases
Drones have hit the headlines in recent years as reduced cost flying machines became a popular toy and business tool.
There have been a series of near misses with aircraft and last month a woman in Devon was shocked to see a device hovering outside her home.
Drones carrying contraband have been flown in to prisons on eight occasions so far this year, it was revealed this week.
But the large pilotless craft set to be flying in and out of Newquay are a far cry from the low-cost mini-helicopters fitted with portable cameras and used by amateur photographers.
A drone weighing under 20kg can be bought and flown by anyone for domestic use, outside restricted airspace and below 400ft.
When taking pictures or video they cannot be flown within 150 metres of congested areas or gatherings of more than 1,000 people.
However, larger craft must be registered with the CAA and have a certificate of airworthiness and only licensed pilots are allowed to take them into the skies.
Unmanned air vehicles (UAV) such as the four-and-a-half-tonne Barracuda are more akin to small jets.
The plane would be flown in and out remotely from a desk at the airport terminal.
The control tower would communicate by radio to the controller on his keypad as if he were another pilot in the air.
Newquay has now become involved with a similar project at Llanbedr airfield, in Wales, where UAVs are flying out into Cardigan Bay.
Last year, protesters demonstrated on the landing strip against the use of Watchkeepers, a military UAV owned by the Ministry of Defence.
Smaller drones were also recently used by the contractors repairing the sea wall at Dawlish to assess the condition of the surrounding cliffs.
One entrepreneur offers a post-cremation drone service to scatter ashes, and the likes of Amazon Prime Air and Google’s Project Wing have called for specific air routes to allow for direct to door e-commerce deliveries. But the recent boom in their recreational and commercial use has meant that the technology has overtaken the current legal and regulatory framework
Tom Torkar, an associate at Michelmores solicitors, said laws both nationally and internationally will be forced to adapt.
He added: “All we know for sure is that users, both recreational and commercial need to understand current legal requirements but also plan for these inevitable future legal developments. A new Law of Drones is already on the horizon.”