BAE Systems, a British defense and aerospace company, revealed earlier in February that the Taranis unmanned combat air vehicle demonstrator successfully completed its maiden flight at an undisclosed test location in Australia back in August.
Recent imagery acquired by DigitalGlobe would appear to confirm that the UCAV took off from Woomera airfield, South Australia, a location well known to plane spotters. Although the imagery is of relatively low fidelity, measurements using Google Earth suggest a wingspan of around 9 meters matching public information. Unfortunately, an accurate measurement of the fuselage is practically impossible with the current imagery quality, especially since the nose appears to be fitted with a communications array or a pitot tube with AOA indicators, according to handhelds.
Imagery from October available in Google Earth still showed the aircraft parked on the apron at the airfield. In addition, surrounding support equipment around the aircraft may even suggest pre-post flight activity at the time of capture. BAE Systems Nigel Whitehead said a number of flights were executed last year at a variety of altitudes and speeds but could not confirm details.
The joint British-French project is named after the Celtic god of thunder and is comparable with the US Navy’s X-47B. Like its US counterpart, the aircraft has been designed to fly with a high degree of autonomy from take-off to landing. According to BAE’s own infographic, the UCAV would fly over a target location using a predetermined flight plan providing persistent surveillance until a target has been identified. It would then let loose its payload from two internal weapon bays only after confirmation from a human controller at mission command. Beyond this seemingly standard ground attack capability, not much else is known in terms of offensive measures, especially in regards to negotiating enemy aircraft.
Unveiled to the public by BAE in 2010, the demonstrator took 1.5 million man-hours to build and costs around $303.3 million. The UCAV has been in development since December 2006 when BAE signed the contract with the UK Ministry of Defense. By April 2013 taxi trials were underway at Warton Aerodrome, an airfield also hosting BAE’s manufacturing facilities. With its blended wing shaped body, the Taranis is the most advanced UAV ever developed by the UK.