The all-British Taranis UCAV demonstrator has flown in fully stealth mode during a second phase of flight testing, BAE Systems revealed at the Farnborough Airshow this week. The flights took place last winter from Woomera, South Australia- a location that the company is still not allowed to acknowledge by the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD). “The overall achievements and objectives of the Taranis program remain highly classified,” Chris Garside, engineering director BAE Systems told a media briefing.
Nevertheless, Garside was able to provide some details of the progress of the £185 million project, declaring it to be “a triumph” and “the most complex air system ever built in the UK.”
Taranis, named after the Celtic god of thunder, has been designed and built by BAE Systems, Rolls-Royce, the systems division of GE Aviation, and QinetiQ, working with MoD scientists and staffers. In addition to achieving low-observability, the technical challenges have been propulsion integration; novel controls; secure communication; concealed weapons configuration; low-cost composites; interactive mission systems; and artificial intelligence, including achieving high levels of autonomy while retaining a man-in-the-loop (MITL).
To achieve full stealth, the nose-mounted, air-data boom that was carried on the first series of flights starting in August 2013 was removed in favor of a conformal air-data system. This was “a major step forward,” according to Garside. “We were very pleased with the flight control performance,” he added. The air vehicle features large control surfaces above and below the outer wing, as well as trailing-edge flaperons.
Another stealth measure was to replace some conventional antennas used on the first series of flights, with “signature control variants,” although Garside did not say whether these were conformal, retractable or a combination of both.
Modified R-R Adour
Garside was joined in the briefing by Conrad Banks, chief engineer for R&T, Rolls-Royce, who declared that all objectives relating to the powerplant integration had been met. These included fully embedding and insulating the modified Adour Mk951 turbofan inside the air vehicle, while minimizing performance loss; coping with airflow distortions to the hidden compressor face; designing the “letterbox” high-aspect ratio configuration of the exhaust, for low radar cross-section and minimal infrared signature; and coping with the very high electrical and hydraulic power demands on the engine, compared with this engine’s standard application on the BAe Hawk jet trainer.
Banks said he could not discuss the intake and exhaust geometry, except to note that the exhaust aligns with the vehicle trailing edge and is made of advanced titanium alloy. He reported no surge issues in either flight phase. “Reliability is very important, and good diagnostics are required, because access to the engine is not easy,” he added.
The second-phase trials included a demonstration of “a realistic operational scenario,” according to Garside. The mission comprised auto-taxi; takeoff and transit; navigate to search area; ingress, search and egress profile generation; target detection and geolocation; generation of an attack profile; simulated attack; battle damage assessment; re-attack and continue search; egress; automatic landing; and auto-taxi.
Garside said that the Taranis system could create its own flight path to the target, but that it “seeks approval” according to MITL considerations, despite the high levels of autonomy.
The air vehicle was now back in the UK, Garside confirmed. “We are currently discussing options for more flight trials with the MoD,” he said. In earlier briefings, officials said that a third flying phase was planned. Garside declined to provide the number of flights, or the airborne hours accumulated.
By contrast, officials responsible for the pan-European Neuron UCAV demonstrator have been much more forthcoming. The Neuron has flown 50 times, Eric Trappier, CEO of Dassault Aviation, told AIN here Tuesday. It is due to drop a weapon in the next flight test phase, to take place in Sweden, he confirmed. Garside refused to discuss the weaponization of Taranis, but AIN understands that no weapons drop has been planned in the British program.
Trappier paid a flying visit to the show, for the signing of the Anglo-French Future Combat Air Systems (FCAS) agreement. This will take forward the work done on the Neuron and Taranis demonstrators. Garside said that the FCAS feasibility study would include maturation of key technologies; development of operational concepts; enhanced Anglo-French simulation capabilities; and costings. A common configuration for the UK and France was “a possible outcome” of the study, he added.