A top-secret stealth drone has carried out its first successful test flights, the Ministry of Defence has announced.
The Taranis unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), named after the Celtic god of thunder, was first unveiled in July 2010, but has remained classified until today when MoD and BAE Systems announced that the aircraft completed its first flight trials last August and said it had surpassed all expectations.
The project, which has so far cost £185m funded jointly by the Ministry of Defence and UK industry, was today billed as the most technologically advanced aircraft ever built in the UK, which will be able to launch precision strikes in hostile territory while remaining undetected.
But military bosses today said that although the aircraft could fly itself autonomously, it would not be used in that way – and would not be able to set its own missions.
Group managing director of BAE Systems Nigel Whitehead said in a maiden 15-minute flight on August 10 at a secret location outside the UK the "combat vehicle demonstrator", designed to prove that the technology it is using works, carried out a perfect take-off, rotation, "climb-out" and landing, piloted remotely by former RAF pilot Bob Fraser.
Whitehead said a number of flights, lasting up to one hour each, and at a variety of altitudes and speeds, were carried out last year, but could not confirm exactly how many.
He said: "The aircraft has been designed to demonstrate the UK's ability to create an unmanned air system which, under the control of a human operator, is capable of undertaking sustained surveillance, marking targets, gathering intelligence, deterring adversaries and carrying out strikes in hostile territory."
Taranis, which could eventually be built and used in the 2030s, would be the first British unmanned combat aircraft specifically designed to fly in contested airspace.
And though Britain already uses drones, they remain a controversial subject as some fear technological advances would see aircraft flying themselves and choosing their own targets.
But Air Vice Marshal Sue Gray, who is director of Combat Air at Defence Equipment and Support, said that would not be the case and, although Taranis could technically fly itself autonomously, it would not be operated in that way. She said every test flight had been carried out with a pilot controlling it.
"We are talking about there being a man in the loop. The aircraft is capable of flying itself, that's not the way it would be operated” she said. "It is capable technologically of flying autonomously but that's not the way it would be operated.
"The technology is there for it to fly an automated route but that is not what you do when you fly a mission. There will always be a man in the loop. It can only fly once it has been programmed by a person. It can't make up its own missions."
She said Taranis would be an important addition to Britain's fleet of manned and unmanned aircraft and, importantly, had a focus on "low observability".
"When you start going into contested airspace you need to have every advantage," she said.
She said Taranis had not been tested with a full weapons system yet, but would probably have a "full range" of weapons.
Philip Dunne, minister for defence equipment, support and technology, said: "This is the most advanced air system yet conceived, designed, and built in the UK and it is vitally important for the future both of UK air defence and the UK defence industry."
"Taranis is providing vital insights that will help shape 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."
Ground testing of the Taranis demonstrator began in 2010 at BAE Systems' military aircraft factory in Warton, Lancashire, and in April last year taxi trials were carried out on the runway before the aircraft and its ground station were shipped to the secret test-range.