BAE's superdrone Taranis to be tested at Woomera
The most secretive piece of airspace in Australia - the RAAF-run Woomera flight test range in South Australia - will make history later this year when the world's first unmanned supersonic stealth combat aircraft makes its maiden test flight above the desert.
Extreme secrecy surrounds the joint British-French project and the drone called Taranis, named after the Celtic god of thunder and built by a British/French consortium led by aerospace giant BAE Systems.
Resembling an insect and using the delta-shaped "flying wing'' technology favoured by modern-day stealth aircraft such as America's B-2 stealth bomber, Taranis is designed to fly above the speed of sound over long distances undetected by enemy radars to attack targets with an array of precision missiles and bombs.
Unlike current generation attack drones such as Predator and Reaper, that are used extensively to attack insurgent targets in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen, Taranis will carry the latest in remote defensive technology so it can also evade missiles and hostile manned aircraft.
Unmanned drones are unlikely to ever engage in a dog fight with a manned fighter jet, but the technology is being developed. A more likely future scenario is a long-range missile fight between combat drones.
The Woomera restricted area has already played host to a number of world firsts including the maiden flight of a scram jet engine that could power aircraft to speeds in excess 8500 kmh or Mach 7 - seven times the speed of sound.
That would enable future passenger jets to fly a sub-orbital trajectory from Sydney to London in two hours.
The rocket range is the second busiest launch pad in the world after NASA's Cape Canaveral in Florida.
In 2009 BAE Systems flew a propeller driven drone known as a Mantis at Woomera.
The military regularly uses the range to test missiles and foreign governments use the vast test site for a variety of top-secret test missions.
The company said Taranis was designed to utilise the most advanced means possible of achieving low observability.
"This includes both the systems and technology inside the aircraft as well as the shape, design and finish of the exterior of the aircraft. This does mean that there are aspects of the exterior design of the aircraft which remain classified,'' it said.
Other details such as range and top speed are also top-secret.
The development of pilotless combat aircraft is controversial and many regard the risks of mistakes associated with removing humans from the kill chain as unacceptable.
Several American companies are also developing unmanned fighters and helicopters for land and sea based operations.
A senior American aerospace executive told News Limited that the fifth-generation F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, being purchased by the RAAF, will be the last manned fighter built in the US.
TARANIS: The future of air combat
- World's first supersonic (above speed of sound) stealth unmanned combat aircraft
- Flying delta wing design 12 metres long with 10-metre wingspan
- Flies on pre-programmed flight path guided by on-board computer
- Stealth technology makes it virtually invisible to enemy radars
- Can select its own targets but final 'kill' decision taken by mission command
- Destroy targets with onboard missiles and provides intelligence back to command
- First flight to follow hundreds of hours of ground testing and one million man hours
Source: News - 14 April 2013
Photo: The Australian Unmanned Stealth Combat Aircraft Taranis, made by BAE systems, which is being tested at Woomera. (Photo by BAE Systems)