It is hoped that Jetstream, developed by BAE Systems, could carry out search missions and investigate weather systems someday.
BAE have said that it is the first aircraft of its kind with the ability to “sense and avoid” bad weather and other airborne hazards such as other aircraft.
The technology has been developed by Astraea, an industry-led development programme with £60 million backing. Astraea also receives some of its funding from the Technology Strategy Board, which in turn is funded by the Department of Business, Innovation, and Skills.
The plane can detect bad weather systems using an electronic eye – which is a camera linked to the aircraft’s on board computer. It can be used to identify certain cloud types, and plot a course around them. The eye is used in conjunction with an aircraft identification antenna which is used to avoid mid-air collisions.
Jetstream is also fitted with infra-red technology on its underside which can be used to find a place to land in the event of an emergency.
“The [aircraft] has been configured as a 'surrogate UAV', where the onboard pilots can take their hands off the controls and hand over control to the on-board system developed by the Astraea team,” said BAE engineering director Lambert Dopping-Hepenstal.
“Racks of computers and control systems in the rear of the aircraft mean it can fly as if it were [unmanned] without any input from the pilots. The weather avoidance system will use sophisticated image processing techniques to detect and avoid clouds and is just one of the new capabilities being tested.”
On the 20 test flights, Jetstream will have two pilots on board to carry out take off and landings, and will also have a further three engineers observing the computer systems during flight.
Despite this, there is growing opposition to the use of drones.
"There is no parliamentary or public consultation in the UK on this and I believe there is a huge amount of public scepticism,” said Chris Cole from Drone Wars UK to the BBC.
“The defence industry is part of the Astraea project. They are working with defence companies to see what changes need to be made to airspace regulation to ensure these drones fly safety in the UK.
“There is a big difference between remotely controlled surveillance drones and autonomous drone flights. This is a huge step forward and it is happening too quickly.”
However, the British Airline Pilots Association has cautiously welcomed the move. Balpa chairman Captain Mark Searle, said: “The most important safety system that we currently have on board aircraft is the eyes and ears of well-trained pilots.
“Such technology... could offer benefits for manned aircraft operations as well, but there are issues which must be resolved first in order to ensure safety for all airspace users.”
Capt Searle also underlined that public perception needs to adapt before unmanned planes come into widespread use.
"The public like to be assured when flying that there are capable, professional, well-trained pilots in command. We can not see this changing any time soon."