Is the Taranis UAV operational?

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The Taranis prototype in flight over Woomera Test Range, South Australia
The Taranis prototype in flight over Woomera Test Range, South Australia

Britain’s Taranis unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) was dubbed the most advanced, albeit the most top secret platform in the whole world.

The Taranis unmanned aerial system (UAS) was described as “already operational” in a recent report by Popular Science. This is the world’s most cutting edge and at the same time ’hush-hush’ drone. The system is designed for asymmetrical warfare and constitute a combat stealth UAV capable of dropping bombs and launching missiles.

The announcement by Popular Science, namely that “Taranis is already operational”, may have been premature. Nevertheless, the term ’operational’ might be subject to various interpretations. It is know that so far, Taranis completed one successful test flight, which was recorded and publicized. This followed various tests. On the other hand, this amazing system is yet to be deployed in the British armed forces, nor any other army for that matter.

Taranis made its first successful test flight on August 10 2014 at the Woomera test range in South Australia. It flew for 15 minutes, maneuvering at various altitudes and reaching various speeds and then landing. All this was controlled by an RAF veteran pilot. A week later, on August 17, another test flight took place. Since then, it is estimated there have been additional flights.

Named after the Celtic god of thunder, Taranis is under development in the framework of the UK Ministry of Defense as a chief contractor, primarily by BAE Systems. One notable participant is Rolls Royce.

According to Popular Science, there are currently two Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle (UCAVs) under developed. In addition to the UK’s Taranis, the other is the US RQ-180 by Northrop Grumman. The US UCAV is currently being tested at Area 51.

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Details concerning either UAS are under wraps. Nevertheless, it is known that both feature unprecedented levels of stealth for UASs. These weapons systems are designed to serve the following strategy: the more warfare is becoming asymmetrical, stealth UAVs are becoming better suited to perform operations which are based on high levels for stealth so that “no one would ever know they were there”.

Whilst the US RQ-180 is designed primarily for intelligence gathering missions, the UK’s Taranis is designed to be an armed UAV capable of dropping bombs, launching missiles and even attack airborne platforms. Its stealth is achieved thanks to its design, which lack any exterior steering, thanks to its relatively small fuselage, masking the UAV’s signature, and consequently it has a low radar signature. The US RQ-180 has a wingspan of 40 meters, compared with Taranis’s 10. Experts therefore deduce the UK’s UCAV is designed for low altitude, high speed missions. BAE Systems engineer Chris Lee explains the design carefully addressed the fuselage, in order to feature engine concealment.

Taranis, whose length is 12.4 meters, can reach a speed of 700 Miles per hour. It has one engine, developed and manufactured by Rolls Royce. Its weapons systems are top secret. All is known that it features an internal missile bay which can accommodate two missiles.

How do you achieve autonomy when piloting a stealth Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle such as Taranis? Among its components are a sensors suit, radar system, GPS, inertial navigation and an autopilot. All these fly the UAS and enable it to gather intelligence, relay transmissions to ground stations and in certain case, drop bombs and launch missiles.