Flight of the Taranis

Posted on 12 Feb 2014 by Victoria Fitzgerald

TM’s Victoria Fitzgerald took off to see the how the unmanned aircraft system, “Taranis” faired during its maiden flight.

In the grandeur setting of the Royal College of Engineering, representatives from BAE Systems, the Ministry of Defence, Rolls-Royce, the systems division of GE Aviation and QinetiQ gathered to reveal how unmanned combat aircraft system (UCAS) Taranis “surpassed all expectations” during its first flight trials. The flights took place at an undisclosed location on August 10 last year, information that has since remained classified.

Named after the Celtic god of thunder, Taranis is being hailed by military chiefs as the most advanced aircraft built by British engineers, making what was described as a “perfect take-off, rotation, ‘climb-out’, and landing” on its first 15-minute flight. Several flights took place last year, varying in speed, duration and altitude.

To date, the stealth drone demonstrator has cost £185 million and is the result of one-and-a-half-million man hours of work by the UK’s most prolific scientists, aerodynamicists and systems engineers from 250 UK companies. The aircraft has been designed to, under the control of a human operator, undertake sustained surveillance, mark targets, gather intelligence, deter adversaries and perform air strikes in hostile territories.

Philip Dunne, Minister for Defence Equipment, Support and Technology said: “Taranis is providing vital insights that will help shape the future capabilities for our armed forces in coming decades. Its advanced technology is testament to the UK’s world leading engineering skills that keep Britain at the cutting edge of defence.”

The Taranis demonstrator was formally unveiled in July 2010, with initial ground testing beginning at BAE System’s military aircraft factory in Warton, Lancashire, although a limited number of scientists and engineers were given access to the top secret UCAS.

Since 2010 various “pre-first-flight milestones” have taken place including unmanned pilot training, radar cross section measurements and ground station system integration. In April 2013, taxi trials took place on the Warton runway, the aircraft and its ground station was dismantled and rumoured to have been shipped to an undisclosed area in Australia where it was reassembled for its maiden flight.

The UK is looking to collaborate with France in an attempt to share development costs of its Remotely Piloted Air Systems (RPAS). China and the US that are among other countries that are creating similar technology.

Nigel Whitehead, Group Managing Director of BAE Systems added: “The first flight of Taranis represents a major landmark for UK aviation. The demonstrator is the most advanced air system ever conceived, designed and built in the UK. It truly represents an evolution of everything that has come before it. The milestone confirms the UK’s leading position as a centre for engineering excellence and innovation.”

He said that he hoped the Taranis project would “attract new talent” and “inspire future generations” to the industry.