THE latest aircraft flying from an Essex airfield have dispensed with a piece of kit long considered rather vital in aviation – a pilot.
The vintage grass-strip airfield at Stow Maries – so vintage that tarmac is still considered a cool invention – opened in 1916, when aviation was still in its infancy.
Now this sleepy place from the dawn of flight finds itself at the cutting edge of 21st-century flight technology.
The Great War aerodrome recently became the test base for UK Aerovision, a leading operator of UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) – known to the general public as drones.
Working with UAV manufacturers in Switzerland and Holland, Aerovision uses StowMaries to put the latest technology through its paces.
Aerovision director Perran Bonner, says: “UAV technology is developing very fast, particularly as the batteries get lighter.
“Stow Maries, which is in recognised airspace, in remote surroundings, is the ideal environment to test it.”
Indeed, the place is so deeply rural that one issue faced by Arerovision has been suspicious buzzards.
Perran says: “Luckily they haven’t attacked one of our UAVs yet, but we’ve held our breath.”
Perran is a keen leisure pilot, with hundreds of flying hours under his belt, but when on drone business he has to remain strictly grounded, while the drone does the work and even makes some of the decisions.
The human contribution has become all but redundant. “The brains are all in the software,”
Perran and his fellow Aerovision director Gary Nel, who both live in Essex, joined forces in 2013.
Perran’s background is in electronic communication, Gary’s in civil engineering and construction.
Some years ago, both, quite separately, woke up to the potential of drones for the industries they worked in.
“Then we met, said ‘let’s join forces’, and we did. Simple as that,”
Between them, the pair operate a fleet of five drones. The aircraft fall into two categories, the rotor-bladed type (like a helicopter, but with more whirligigs) and the fixed-wing craft. The latter is made from polystyrene and tips the scales at less than a kilo, though at the bank it weighs in at £20,000. The former is operated from a hand-held control panel.
The drones have the ability to bring out the 10-year-old in even the stodgiest middle-aged citizen, but for Perran and Gary their value is unashamedly commercial. Little planes are big business.
For big utility companies, in particular, flightless planes offer huge advantages, spelt out by Gary in three bullet points: “Cost. Safety.
Perran points across the flat fields to the Stow Maries water tower, a well-known landmark for First World War airmen and for every Essex pilot ever since.
“To scaffold that tower for a condition inspection would cost £18,000. We can do the job with an airborne camera and it would cost...” He suddenly remembers that Aerovision does not give out prices. But it amounts to between five and ten per cent of that £18,000.
Pylons are another feature ripe for the attention of the drones. At present, inspection is done hands on by highwiremen, an expensive and dangerous business.
“Everything that people can do on pylons, the UAVs can do,” says Gary. “The cameras are so precise that you can see the markings on the bolts.”
The drones also have clear potential for the police and security services.
Indeed, one of Aerovision’s drones captured a rogue crew illicitedly digging up a graveyard.
“We were doing a quite different job. We just caught it while we were passing,” says Gary.
Perhaps the biggest market of all, eventually, will be the boys’ toys market. There is no restriction on the sale of drones. “If you’ve got £20,000 to spare, you can just buy a UAV off the shelf,” says Gary.
Ironically, while Perran and Gary are rigorously licensed, tested and inspected, mere funsters need no permits to fly their drones.
“It’s onlywhen you’re flying commercially that you have to deal with the rules and regulations,”
“But we’re happy to work painstakingly with them. It’s vital that we are, and are seen to be, safe and responsible.”
Among other rules, Perran and Gary are limited to flying a maximum 400 metres in height, and 500 metres distance. “But we’ve both just sat exams which will allow us to fly beyond the horizon,” says Perran.
Perran and Gary are drone pros, but elsewhere, stories of cowboy dronesters are doing the rounds.
“We heard one tale about a guy who flew a UAV about ten metres over the heads of some people, and then crashed it into a nuclear submarine pen,” says Perran. “Not surprisingly, he then legged it.”
The prospect of more incidents like this has inspired Perran and Gary to start what could be their most successful enterprise of all – UAV training, for the public.
“We think we are the first people to do this sort of thing,” says Gary.
“We’ve had to learn a lot along the way, and we’re in a good position now to pass on that knowledge.”
The courses are due to be run at StowMaries – no doubt much to the disgust of the local buzzards.