By Brett Gillin
The days of combat pilots strapping themselves into an aircraft in order to face off with an enemy seem to be getting closer to ending. With the latest news out of the United Kingdom, a top-secret, unmanned British plane has just completed another set of flights and trials. This isn’t your standard, run-of-the-mill unmanned drone either: instead the warplane, which is nicknamed “Taranis” is a fully capable, unmanned stealth vehicle, capable of being almost completely invisible to radar.
The plane, which according to this story on Fox News costs nearly $316 million U.S. dollars, was developed by BAE Systems, a British multinational defense company headquartered in London. Fox News reports that Taranis “can conduct surveillance, gather intelligence, and attack combat targets on the ground or in the air.”
Taranis, which looks a bit like a smaller version of the now-famous B2 Stealth Bomber, has a wingspan nearly 33 feet across, is just over 40 feet long, and has capabilities to reach speeds of over Mach 1.0. While most of the details of the unmanned plane remain classified, according to this picture published by the BBC, it seems that the craft has two internal bays that are more than five meters in length. It can be assumed that those bays could carry an assortment of armaments.
Gizmag.com reports, after speaking with Conrad Banks, the Chief Engineer of Rolls-Royce (who manufacture at least part of the propulsion system for the aircraft) that the jet also has a completely hidden engine and exhaust system.
“Successful propulsion integration was another key highlight of the second trial phase, with the fully embedded and ‘hidden’ Adour Mk951 engine operating flawlessly coupled with the highly complex and stealthy exhaust system,” Banks told Gizmag. They also report that mission command can stay in constant contact with the aircraft via state-of-the-art communications that won’t reveal its location, and leave no radar signature.
During the latest test flight, which is the second of its kind according to Fox News, engineers tested the artificial intelligence, communications systems, engine, and stealth technologies. While many of the results of the tests are classified, Fox was able to find out that these tests occurred between October 2013 and March 2014.
During a recent public demonstration, Taranis showed off its abilities to taxi to a runway, takeoff, fly to a target, simulate an attack, and return to base. All of these functions are available without use of a GPS, in case the systems are jammed, thanks to onboard electronic maps.
It is not known when the next set of tests will occur or when the warplane will be ready for combat, but one thing is for sure: we’re closer than ever to the days of pilots inside of warplanes being a thing of the past.