BAe Systems Taranis UCAV
The development of UCAVs is gathering pace with a number of countries busy developing their own systems, such as the USA with the Northrop X-47, Russia with their MiG SKAT and Germany with the Barracuda or becoming involved in a partnership arrangement, such as the Neuron UCAV led by France but with participation from Greece, Italy, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland. Most of the key technologies for UCAVs are readily available in isolation, the challenge is to draw all these elements together into a working UCAV, something that will take both time and considerable financial investment, not least in the complex mission software that is probably the most crucial part of the whole system. Time will tell which of these systems actually enters service.
BAE Systems has quite rightly steered clear of becoming entangled in a collaborative UCAV project with any country and instead decided to build on the work undertaken in their Replica and Nightjar studies. In close collaboration with other UK companies such as QinetiQ, Rolls-Royce and Smiths, they instead have quietly and in some secrecy developed a number of prototype UCAVs to test the basic design and systems involved in a full scale UCAV. In 2003 the first of two demonstrators named Raven first flew at the Woomera test range in central Australia. Built mainly of carbon fibre, the Raven incorporated the main design element that appears on nearly all UCAVs - a flying wing with no vertical or horizontal tail surfaces. On the Raven the Adour engine is buried in the centre of the fuselage with the air intake on top and all control surfaces situated on the wing and aligned with the trailing edge. The Raven was used to develop and test a digital flight control system for the aerodynamically unstable design and was fully autonomous from take-off to landing, but also retained a ground station. BAE Systems then embarked on testing a larger scale version of the Raven named Corax. This design retained the central fuselage, engine and systems of the Raven with a larger 10 metre high aspect wing and was designed from the outset as a long-endurance unmanned reconnaissance air vehicle. Corax first flew in 2004, once again at the Woomera test range and provided BAE Systems with additional feedback on their design and flight control system.
Building on the success of these demonstration programmes, in 2007 BAE Systems were awarded a £124 M contract to develop another UCAV named Taranis, after the Celtic god of thunder. The contract is part of the MODís Strategic Unmanned Air Vehicle (Experiment) SUAV(E) programme and aims to explore and demonstrate how emerging technologies and systems can deliver battle-winning capabilities for the UK armed forces. Around the size of the Hawk aircraft, the low-observable 8 ton Taranis will be designed for fully autonomous reconnaissance and attack missions and will probably be powered by a Rolls-Royce Adour engine. The first Technology Demonstration Vehicle (TDV) will not actually drop weapons, but will simulate weapons release as part of flight testing during a typical mission scenario. The Taranis will probably have two internal weapons bays and an optional fit of electro-optical and radar sensors, eventually it could even carry directed energy weapon systems such as a laser or high-powered microwave transmitter. Ground testing of the Taranis is planned to begin in early 2009 at the Woomera test range, with the first flight to follow in 2010.
In developing and successfully flying the experimental Raven and Corax UCAVs, without having to enter into collaborative arrangements with other major aviation companies, BAE Systems has avoided getting bogged down by the usual in-fighting that national collaboration always involves and has also demonstrated that it is as far ahead in this field as any company outside the USA. BAE Systems have now formed a new air sector business centre the Autonomous Systems and Capability (Air) with its own management, research and technology team to exploit the potential business opportunities available in this emerging market.