By Robert Verkaik
It is named after the Celtic god of thunder, can fly faster than the speed of sound and evades enemy radar with its single-wing stealth design. This is Taranis, Britain’s latest pilotless combat aircraft, which is even capable of selecting its own targets.
The revolutionary superdrone is due to make its maiden flight in the next few weeks and could spearhead the fight against terrorism in Africa. Military chiefs believe Taranis’s ground-breaking technology will allow a powerful new generation of drones equipped with deadly payloads to fly from British bases to attack targets worldwide.
But the new developments in pilotless aircraft are controversial as they allow the possibility of autonomous computers targeting and killing enemy combatants outside human control. Experts even warned last night that the new technology raised the nightmare spectre of out-of-control robots waging war on humans – and called for a global ban on autonomous technology.
Britain’s armed drones are currently piloted remotely by aircrews on the ground. But Taranis will follow a set flightpath using on-board computers to perform manoeuvres, avoid threats and identify targets. Only when it needs to attack a target will it seek authorisation from a human controller.
Professor Noel Sharkey, a robotics engineer specialising in autonomous military systems at Sheffield University, said last night: ‘This is a very dangerous move. Once it has been developed, who knows what new governments who inherit the technology will do with it.’
Last week, Prime Minister David Cameron warned that the fight against terrorism in North Africa could last decades, meaning futuristic drones could dominate counter-terrorism strategy in the region.
The controversy surrounding their use was highlighted last week when the United Nations launched an investigation into the deaths caused by conventional drone attacks.
British Forces currently operate armed drones only in Afghanistan, where they target Taliban insurgents. However, a proliferation in mainly US military technology has sparked a drone arms race. To compete, the UK Government has committed itself to a new generation of pilotless aircraft which can fly distances of more than 2,000 miles.
A defence source said that Taranis’s long-anticipated maiden test flight has been delayed by technological setbacks as well as UK aviation safety laws which restrict the flight of drones in this country.
But the source added that the aircraft, which weighs eight tons and is about the size of an RAF Hawk jet, will make its first flight in Australia in the next few weeks, where its progress will be closely monitored by Ministry of Defence chiefs.