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 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. Flight control was by a lightweight autopilot which received commands, from a ground crew in the mobile control cabin, via a ground data terminal and two-way secure data link. 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. The gyrostabilised sensor pod was protected by the RPV landing inverted, assisted by a parachute. The tops of the flexible tail fins and the wing tips were easily replaceable.
Phoenix operated in Kosovo in 1999 and later saw service in Iraq, 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By then, enormous advances in electronics and sensor technology had overtaken the pioneering design and Phoenix was withdrawn from service in 2008.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 on display had been displayed in Marconi Way, by the entrance
to the Airport Works factory of what is now BAE Systems. After the ravages of weather, it has been restored to display condition for BAE Systems by Medway Aircraft Preservation Society (MAPS) Limited, the all-volunteer organisation based at Rochester Airport. The wings and fuselage of a second RPV have been rebuilt by MAPS and are now in storage at MAPS