An unmanned combat aircraft has been built for the British military is to undergo its first ever test flight later this year.
It can fly faster than the speed of sound, cannot be detected by radar and has no pilot. This is the new robotic plane that will become the next generation of front line bombers for the British military.
The drone, which is named Taranis after the Celtic god of thunder, has been designed to fly intercontinental missions to attack targets and can automatically dodge incoming missiles.
The aircraft, which has cost £125 million to build, is intended to be the first of a new generation of aeroplanes that will reduce the need to risk human lives on long, dangerous missions.
It is to be flown for the first time in a series of tests over the Australian outback in the spring in an attempt to demonstrate the technology to military chiefs.
Currently the Royal Air Force uses Tornado GR4 bombers as its front line strike aircraft, although the Typhoon Eurofighter is expected to replace it in the coming years.
Remote controlled drones such as Reaper are also used by the Ministry of Defence and US military to attack targets.
But the Taranis is expected to provide a prototype of a new kind of bomber that will replace piloted planes and the current drones.
With a shape more similar to the US B-2 Stealth bomber, it intended to fly automatically using an on-board computer system to perform manoeuvres, avoid threats and identify targets. Only when it needs to attack a target will it seek authorisation from a human controller.
Nigel Whitehead, group managing director of programmes at BAE Systems, which has been developing Taranis, said the new drone could change the way aircraft are used by the MoD in the future, which currently uses manned planes for combat missions.
He said: “I think that the Taranis programme will be used to inform the UK MoD thinking, regarding the make up for the future force mix. I anticipate that the UK will chose to have a mix of manned and unmanned front-line aircraft.
“This decision will have a major impact on the future of the UK military.”
The Taranis uses stealth technology, including a highly secretive coating that helps it slip through radar undetected. It will be able to carry a series of weapons on board including missiles and laser guided bombs.
The use of drones, however, has come under intense criticism from human rights groups, who claim their use as weapons contravenes international laws as often innocent targets can be killed.
The Reaper and Predator drones currently used by the British and US military are operated by remote control using pilots based at a command centre.
Although they fly relatively slowly, with a maximum speed of 287 miles per hour, less than half the speed of sound, their ability to perform “hunter-killer” missions or support ground troops in Afghanistan without risking human pilots has seen them increasingly used.
Unmanned aircraft are now being seen as a way of producing planes that can fly further, faster and higher than is currently possible with human pilots, who can grow tired or blackout in manoeuvres that produce high g-forces.
There are concerns, however, that as drones are made more autonomous, they will pose more of a risk if they go out of control and leaving computers to make life or death decisions is highly controversial.
Taranis, however, will still rely on instructions from a central command centre before attacking targets.
The tests on Taranis, which is powered by a Rolls-Royce Adour 951 engine used on Hawk training jets, will see it flying a simulated mission where it must automatically avoid unexpected threats such as ground to air missiles and seek out potential targets.
Once identified, the operators will send instructions to Taranis to attack the targets before performing a flying past to confirm the damage and then landing safely.
Mr Whitehead added: “There is one demonstrator aircraft. The mission plan will be loaded onto the vehicle. The aircraft will then fly the mission. Taranis will fly to the search area and sweep the area to identify targets.
“The air vehicle will be presented with unexpected “pop up” threats and its evasive response will be monitored.
“Target information will be relayed to mission command and the aircraft will hold off until given the next instruction to prosecute, send more data or ignore the identified target.
“In the event of a command to attack, this will be carried out followed by a battle damage inspection and then further interaction with command to confirm the instruction to attack again, prosecute other targets or to come home, avoiding further pop-up threats.”
A spokesman for the MoD added: “Taranis is the first of its kind in the UK. Unmanned Air Vehicles play an important role on operations, helping to reduce the risks faced by military personnel on the front line.
“Forthcoming Taranis flight trials will provide MoD and industry with further information about the potential capabilities of Unmanned Combat Air Systems.”
Max speed: Mach 1.3
Max Altitude: 50,000ft
Max speed: Classified but supersonic
Max Altitude: Classified