Unmanned combat air systems (UCAS) look all but certain to play a part in future offensive operations, but considerable work remains to be done to demonstrate that such technology – plus concepts of operation and regulations surrounding its use – can be effectively employed in a combat scenario.

The UK’s Taranis demonstrator is a perfect example of the challenges facing this autonomous corner of future air combat. Jointly funded by the nation’s Ministry of Defence and industrial partners including BAE Systems and Rolls-Royce, the activity remains shrouded in secrecy, almost three years after the stealthy air vehicle made its flight debut.

Three phases of testing have been conducted since the platform’s debut sortie in August 2013, with the most recent having concluded early this year. No information has been released about the number of flights or total hours of testing accumulated, and BAE was until recently even prevented by the MoD from identifying the location where the activities had taken place: Australia’s remote Woomera test range.

A first campaign was focused on proving vehicle control, before activities moved on to expanding the platform’s flight envelope and assessing it in a full low-observable configuration.

Similar in size to BAE’s Hawk advanced jet trainer, and powered by the same Rolls-Royce Turbomeca Adour turbofan engine, Taranis appears likely to return to the air, for further assessment of its design characteristics and performance.

taranis Typhoon

BAE Systems

“Analysis of the third phase of trials is still going on – what we do beyond that is subject to discussions once that analysis is complete,” says Martin Rowe-Willcocks, head of sales – future programmes and services for BAE’s Military Air & Information business unit. Speaking at the company’s Warton site in Lancashire on 8 June, he added: “We know there are still things that can be done with this aeroplane, to achieve a real technological outcome.”

Taranis is the product of more than a decade of development and experimentation in aircraft autonomy by BAE, through unmanned demonstrators like Kestrel and Raven – which both debuted in 2003, plus Corax, Herti and Mantis.

“It’s been quite an adventure over 10 years,” says Rowe-Willcocks, who describes the first experience with the radio-controlled Kestrel as a “lightbulb moment for the business”. From the first addition of automatic take-off and landing capability and system autonomy in Raven, BAE has evolved a core mission system that lies at the heart of the stealthy Taranis, and could be applied to a future operational system.

Programme engineers have previously disclosed that the UCAS demonstrator can be operated in either manual, automatic or autonomous modes, following manual engine start. Taranis is able to taxi to the runway automatically, before taking off and carrying out a number of functions without input from a pilot. During autonomous testing the vehicle begins to fly by itself within a set of boundaries, and will fly and search for targets autonomously in accordance with what it has been programmed to do.

In a programme first during the Farnborough air show, BAE will exhibit a notional ground control station (GCS) and operational scenario for what a combat mission involving a Taranis-like vehicle might look like around 20 years from today.

In one conceptual mission, after flying to a tanker for air-to-air refuelling, the unmanned asset enters a conflict zone and avoids known surface-to-air missile engagement zones before starting to look for a pre-programmed target. Once that has been found, the air vehicle will communicate with a ground controller, or the pilot of a nearby fighter, for confirmation and approval to engage.

“You have to have faith that it’s doing what it should be,” notes BAE operational requirements executive Drew Steele of such an autonomous operating mode. “It’s a big mindset change.”

The GCS has been honed using a mission systems integration facility at the Warton site, which BAE employs to demonstrate technologies and concepts of operation to customers early in the development cycle of projects such as Taranis and the proposed Anglo-French future combat air system (FCAS).

Now roughly three-quarters of the way through two-year assessment phase costing about £200 million ($265 million), the bilateral FCAS initiative is expected to be advanced under a €2 billion ($2.2 billion) joint programme. Following further studies involving parties including airframers BAE and Dassault, propulsion system suppliers R-R and Safran and avionics specialists Leonardo and Thales, a technical review should take place in 2020, and an operationally representative demonstrator – likely to be in the 10-15t weight category – could be flown from around 2025.

Equally, elements of Taranis could be applied to manned aircraft such as the Eurofighter Typhoon, and other platforms, in the case of its sophisticated internal weapons bay.

“Taranis is about measuring, and learning together,” says Rowe-Willcocks, describing the demonstrator as “the most complex, the most advanced autonomous system developed in the UK”. He adds: “We really think we’ve pushed the boundaries an awful lot on the technology and what it’s capable of doing.”

Additional reporting by Beth Stevenson in London

Source: Flight International