MoD unveils autonomous unmanned military aircraft

The Ministry of Defence has unveiled a prototype unmanned combat aircraft that could pave the way for Britain’s first autonomous stealth fighter-bomber.

Taranis brings together a number of British-developed technologies for the first time in a craft designed to seek out and destroy enemy targets without a human pilot.

An audience of MoD officials, industry specialists and journalists received a short glimpse of the aircraft – developed over three and a half years for a cost of £142.5m – on Monday at BAE Systems’ base in Warton, Lancashire.

The wedge-shaped craft is about the size of a BAE Systems Hawk − around 12m long with a wingspan of 10m. It was developed under a joint contract between BAE Systems, DE and S, GE Aviation, Qinetiq and Rolls Royce.

Referred to as an ’unmanned combat air vehicle’ (UCAV), Taranis has the ability to take off and fly a pre-programmed mission to as far away as another continent, as well as to identify targets and request permission to attack them, all without human intervention.

The MoD was keen to stress that any operational vehicle would not leave human control.

‘It is designed to be, at all times, under the control of a highly trained military operator on the ground and can be operated remotely,’ said Gerald Howarth, minister for international security strategy (ISS).

Asked if UCAVs would ever be allowed to engage enemy targets without human permission, air chief marshal Simon Bryan, commander in chief of the UK’s Air Command, said: ‘This is a very sensitive area that we are paying a lot of attention to.’

The first flight test will take place in 2011 and weapons capabilities will be simulated. The MoD will use Taranis as a demonstrator to make decisions about what future UK combat craft would be able to do, but it is likely to be at least 2018 before any vehicle goes into production.

‘I anticipate that whatever goes into service will not look like Taranis but will have the technologies developed for it,’ said Nigel Whitehead, BAE’s managing director for programmes and support.

Taranis’s biggest technical achievement is the combination of a variety of elements within one vehicle, including autonomy systems developed for existing unmanned craft such as BAE’s Mantis, said Whitehead.

‘A number of the individual technologies involved have been looked at in the past, but bringing them all together was a considerable challenge.’

Other specific technological issues that the Taranis designers faced included positioning the craft’s power source within the middle of the body to help make it invisible to enemy sensors across the electromagnetic spectrum.

‘The configuration of the unusual aerodynamics was also a considerable challenge,’ said Whitehead. ‘The craft is finless, so we had to find a way to create directional stability.’

One of the aims of Taranis was to use only British technology and skills, and the result is a craft that the team claims is unique outside of the US.

‘Based on the information I have, we have capabilities that our European counterparts are envious of, particularly in autonomy,’ said Whitehead.

Howarth admitted that the MoD was in discussion with French officials to see if working on bilateral programme would be practical.

The £142.5m of funds used to develop Taranis will take the project to the end of the first flight phase, after which the MoD will have to make a decision about future requirements before further work can continue.

In-depth coverage of the Taranis project can be read by clicking here.