A month before the 9/11 bombings, entrepreneur Ray Mann bought a former WW2 airfield in Wales and is now turning it into a centre for military and civilian drone research. Wired.co.uk investigates
Lost among the rain and clouds of a remote part of Wales, the old WW2 airfield next to the Aberporth military range on Cardigan Bay could be about to become the closest thing Britain has to its own Area 51 for drones if entrepreneur Ray Mann has his way. Mann is a former Rolls-Royce apprentice, a pilot, and CEO of the Ross-on-Wye based Mann Organisation, a company that disassembles electronic goods and sells off reusable components.
With more than 1000 square kilometres of restricted air space above it, and complaints from the locals of noise, crash landings and mysterious lights in the sky, the rather grandly named National Aeronautical Centre (NAC) is the only centre for the testing and evaluation of both military and civilian unmanned aerial Vehicles (UAVs) in the UK. It is the base for testing the UK’s own£800m cigar-shaped autonomous Watchkeeper Unmanned Aerial System, whose first flight in the UK actually took place at the centre in April 2010. There have even been talks about testing cutting-edge space technology there. The only thing missing are the signs reading ” use of lethal force authorised“.
No wonder then anti-drone protestors are drawn to the base. Groups like CND and the local Bro Emlyn — for Peace and Justice (BEPJ) are making Mann’s life difficult by amplifying local complaints about the noise at the base, lack of jobs and even that it is some kind of “white elephant” even though it is an area of high unemployment. The BEPJ’s website salaciously catalogues every setback Ray Mann has had in a real case of protest porn — apparently even that the Watchkeeper operators don’t like all rain in Wales.
However, the now rather thick-skinned Mann, who bought the airfield in 2001 one month before 9/11, is clear about what he is hoping to achieve at what has been labelled by the defence technology company QinetiQ as a UAV centre of excellence:
“We are now the only facility in the country where military and civilian drones can be tested. So we are trying to develop a facility that will put our country into a lead position internationally in a secretive industry that is going to be worth $94bn (£59bn) globally over the next ten years.
“Of course if you drive along the main road then you can’t see what we are doing here. Inside the security fences I am very proud of what we have achieved over the last ten years or so. And you have to put people’s complaints into context. When Barnes Walliswas developing the bouncing bomb at the range here the locals also complained about the noise.”
Situated just off the A487 coastal road in Ceredigion in West Wales, the National Aeronautical Centre was launched at the Farnborough Air Show this year as way of rebranding all the unmanned aerial systems (UAS) activities at the old military airfield now known as West Wales Airport. Next to the airport is the Welsh government owned Parc Aberporth which is designed to be a technology park to capitalise on the companies attracted to the airport by the ability to test UAVs first in the restricted airspace above the testing range and now all the way from Cardigan Bay to the Brecon Beacons. Currently Thales, QinetiQ and Selex Galileo have facilities at the Park.
For Mann the idea of turning the airport into a drone zone or “platform” for the industry to test and evaluate UAVs (as opposed to prototype testing) and their payloads came as a result of 9/11 as “without 9/11 there would have been no war on terror, and no rapid need to develop UAVs” or fly them over 500 square miles of Welsh countryside.
By 2004 the first ever flying demonstration of UAVs in Wales had taken place at the airport and by 2008 it had “already established itself a centre of UAV testing” after a series of annual industry shows. Then it was announced that the MOD’s Watchkeeper programme was coming to town — a welcome £5m share of a “funded programme” in a middle of an economic crisis. The Watchkeeper UAV is based on the Israeli company Elbit’s Hermes tactical UAV.
By 2009 the runway had been extended from 900m to 1200m to enable the drone to take off and land. Investment also enabled the creation of a “plug and play” system that in effect wired up the entire base, with power and broadband connections embedded into the tarmac to allow drones and other assets to be operated from anywhere on the airport. The arrestor wires that can help stop the Watchkeeper when it lands can even retract back into the runway to enable manned planes to land. These changes have also allowed two drones to fly together at one time (as the Watchkeeper is designed to do), and in the future “multiple drones”.
In 2011 the final piece of the puzzle was put in place when the CAA, in a break-through move, agreed the extension of the secure airspace from Aberporth range overland to the Brecon Beacons for the testing of military and, in a unique arrangement, civilian UAVs as well. In this restricted airspace UAVs can fly beyond the line of sight of their operator as normally required by the CAA.
For Mann, while the protestors want to “turn the clock back and uninvent UAVs”, the future of the centre is clear: civilian drones. “The applications of these drones are endless,” he says. Drones can have important civilian roles to play in monitoring storms such as Hurricane Sandy or even dropping aid as in Haiti.
“We are not going to get civilian UAVs until the industry enables the CAA to certify them by producing products that are seen to be as safe as airliners, and these confidence-building activities can only take place in a controlled environment like the centre can provide. They are not going to fly them over London and see if they crash.”
However, Craig Hoyle is worried about the long-term potential of the base. Hoyle is Defence Editor for industry-bible Flight Global.
“The centre’s remote location and proximity to a military test range made it attractive to the companies involved with delivering the British Army’s Watchkeeper system. Restrictions mean that an unmanned aircraft can be flown in segregated air space, also inland.”
“Watchkeeper flight testing has taken place at the centre and in Israel, and each production aircraft built will undergo tests at the site. This work is due to conclude in 2015, and with army training activities likely to occur over Salisbury Plain from Boscombe Down in the future, it is unclear whether the Welsh facility will have any further involvement. If airspace integration activities being pursued through current industry initiatives fail to make the hoped-for progress the centre could remain attractive, otherwise further, and less remote locations could start to host UAV flights.”
For Hoyle it’s “remote and difficult-to-access location” is likely to mean that the NAC may struggle to attract sustained business when they can fly their systems elsewhere. There is also a public perception issue to overcome as “all the drone reporting has engendered a belief that these things are evil in some way!”
Although, he adds, “I know of no other place in the UK which non-military users can utilise as well” and “the UK experience of setting up this site could help with similar plans in other countries like the US.”
In the end Ray Mann believes this unique “military-civilian restricted environment” is his trump card and he can use it to attract some of the industry’s global players to Cardiganshire
If that doesn’t work he is planning on selling the concept of the National Aeronautical Centre around the world and is about to announce a strategic partnership with the State of Oklahoma to help them in their bid to build one of six UAS test centres that the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) will announce in December to help develop the regulatory standards that help the integration of UAS into normal airspace. There were even talks with Oxfordshire’sReaction Engines to test their hypersonic technology at the NAC but “the runway was too short”.
So I wouldn’t give up on Area West Wales just yet.