Since the 1950s, teams at Airport Works have been involved with pilotless drone aircraft, used originally for target practice. Automatic pilots were fitted to dedicated drones, such as the Australian Jindivik, as well as to aircraft at the end of their service lives, such as the Canberra. Company-funded research at GEC Avionics Ltd. proved that images could be transmitted, by day or night, in real time, from an unmanned air vehicle, prompting the Ministry of Defence to invite tenders for a complete system for the British Army. When Phoenix won the contract in 1985, the concept of remote surveillance of the battlefield became a reality. Phoenix could be handled by two soldiers, rapidly assembled and launched from a truck. It was then remotely- controlled from a mobile cabin.
A thermal imaging sensor with zoom lens provided high-quality imagery in real time to the ground station, allowing accurate target location and adjustment of fire. Flight control was by a lightweight autopilot which received commands from a ground crew in the mobile control cabin, using a ground data terminal and two-way secure data link. The sensor pod was gyro-stabilised and protected by the RPV landing inverted, assisted by a parachute. The tops of the tail fins and the wing tips were frangible to protect the pod and easily replaced.
Phoenix operated in Kosovo in 1999 and later saw service in the first Iraq War, in an environment far different from the one for which it had been intended. By then, enormous advances in electronics and sensor technology had overtaken the pioneering design and Phoenix was withdrawn from service in 2008. The RPV that was restored had been displayed in Marconi Way, by the entrance to the Airport Works factory at BAE SYSTEMS. After the ravages of weather, it was restored to display condition for BAE SYSTEMS by MAPSL but remains in store. The wings and fuselage of a second RPV have been rebuilt by MAPSL and were eventually sold in 2018 to the Boscombe Down Aviation Collection at Old Sarum.