July 13, 2010

UK MoD Unveils Unmanned Plane Prototype

United Kingdom's Ministry of Defence recently unveiled a prototype of its first long-range unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV).

The concept plane, named Taranis, is the Ministry's first step in the development of unmanned strike aircraft. It is designed for long-range strikes capable of penetrating enemy territory. It has taken over three million man hours to design and produce.

Defence Minister Gerald Howarth said it was a "truly trailblazing project." The project featured "the best of our nation's advanced design and technology."

The aircraft is scheduled to begin flight testing early in 2011.

Unmanned aircraft carrying weapons are already used by the Ministry of Defence, such as the MQ-1 Predator, although these are only suitable for use in allied controlled airspace.

"This is the next generation of combat aircraft and flight trials will begin next year," said Squadron leader Bruno Wood. "It's a technology demonstrator that could be used as a testbed which may form further potential solutions to the RAF," he told BBC News.

Developing pilotless combat aircraft has been a controversial topic for years, but even more so since the first unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) went into active service.

It is documented and accepted that the most vulnerable part of a plane is the pilot. While the mainframe is capable of pulling multiple Gs -- gravitational force exerted on a body when standing on the Earth at sea level. The maximum safe level for a pilot is 8 or 9 Gs. Anything above that and they would lose consciousness.

Also, most anti-aircraft missiles are designed to explode near the cockpit, peppering the pilot with high-speed shrapnel that can be fatal.

The development of UAVs paralleled the development of the first manned aircraft during World War I, Peter Felstead, editor of Jane's Defense Weekly, told BBC News.

"First they were used for reconnaissance, then they were armed for bombing and ground attack missions and they eventually became air-to-air combat craft," he said.

Felstead emphasized that while there would be greater development of ground-attack UAVs, there would always be the need for a pilot when it comes to air-to-air combat.

"If you have, say, an airliner that is reportedly hijacked, you are going to need that human factor to evaluate just what's going on with the plane, what he can see through the windows and everything else. That's not something, for now, that can be done remotely," Felstead said.

The Ministry of Defence also stressed that all weaponized UAVs were under human control. "Should such systems enter into service, they will at all times be under the control of highly trained military crews on the ground," it said.


Image Caption: The Taranis unmanned combat aircraft prototype. Credit: BAE Systems


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