A large number of British companies are involved in the manufacture and maintenance of unmanned aircraft or drones as well as the systems used to keep these machines in the air. Many of these aircraft are used for reconnaissance, surveillance, mapping and search and rescue although some do have attack capabilities.
A top secret unmanned aerial combat vehicle (UCAV), the Taranis, nicknamed the Raptor is currently under development after taking to the air for the first time in 2013. This UCAV is controlled by a satellite linkup, meaning its pilot can fly it from anywhere. Plans are underway to give the Taranis the ability to fly itself and for artificial intelligence to make decisions. It is intended to carry multiple payloads for both air combat as well as ground and naval strikes. It will also be used for reconnaissance missions, intelligence gathering, and marking targets.
The Taranis project, named after the Celt god of thunder is based on a flying wing stealth design and was first envisaged in 2005. A number of British companies were involved in its initial design as well as the construction of a prototype. These include BAE Systems (the primary contractor), Rolls Royce (propulsion systems) and QinetiQ (system autonomy) while GE Aviation (electrical power systems) from the United States are also involved.
The first Taranis was constructed from 2008 onwards and the first ground tests carried out two years later. Although flight trials were meant to begin in 2011, constant delays meant the Taranis only got off the ground in 2013. The Ministry of Defence plans to have this UCAV operational by 2030.
Manufactured by Barnard Microsystems, the InView, developed in 2010 is used for both commercial and scientific work throughout the world. This unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) is powered by two four stroke petrol engines and is able to continue flying should one of the engines fail. Its modular design makes it easy to assemble, disassemble and transport.
Funds for development of the InView UAV have come from a number of sources including the European Space Agency as well as the Technology Strategy Board. It is primarily used for mineral exploration by a number of large organisations which include Shell, British Petroleum, and Anglo American.
It can also be used in the study of radioactive incidents, search and rescue, policing as well as monitoring extended lengths of gas or oil pipelines. It has a top speed of 112km/h, a range of 700km and can fly for around seven hours.
Originally designed and built by QinetiQ and now part of the Airbus family, the Zephyr is a solar-powered, high altitude Pseudo-Satellite vehicle (HAPS).
As it operates far above weather systems and any commercial air traffic (at an altitude of around 18 kilometres above the earth), the Zephyr has the ability for unending flight, thanks to its solar panels. It can be utilized in a number of areas including maritime surveillance, border surveillance, environment surveillance, navigation, mapping, communications, continuous imagery and missile detection amongst others.
Currently, the Zephyr holds the record for absolute endurance for un-refuelled aircraft by staying in the air for 336 hours and 22 minutes. The Ministry of Defence plans on using the Zephyr for reconnaissance, surveillance and intelligence gathering in the near future and as such, have purchased three of these HAPS units.
The Thales Watchkeeper, a remotely piloted air system (RPAS) is currently in service with the British Army, most notably the Royal Artillery. This unmanned remote controlled machine is used in various roles including intelligence gathering, surveillance, reconnaissance as well as target acquisition.
The design for the Watchkeeper is based on a previous UAV, the Erbit Hermes 450. The machine itself weighs around 450kg and carries 150kg worth of equipment, most notably cameras and other surveillance sensors. Watchkeepers are able to stay airborne for up to 17 hours, running off a Wankel rotary engine. Its range is limited to 150 kilometres from the ground station from which is controlled.
The Watchkeeper first flew in 2010 and over 50 machines were ordered for the British Army. Currently, some units are in use with more under construction. The machine has already seen service in Afghanistan in numerous roles.