The scale of the engineering challenge faced by the company and its partners in developing its latest unmanned aircraft, Taranis, were the subject of a lecture by, Nigel Whitehead FREng, Group MD of Programmes and Support at BAE Systems.

Speaking at the 2012 Lloyd’s Register Educational Trust and Dinner, which took place at the Academy on 18 December, Mr Whitehead lifted the lid on a decade of technology demonstrations and trials to enable Taranis’ autonomous capability, survivability and precision.

The demonstrator aircraft is paving the way towards an operational system which offers reliable, repeatable operations in demanding environments while keeping the man and women of the UK armed forces out of harm’s way, as well as costing a fraction of the cost of manned aircraft, he told his capacity audience.

“We are on the cusp of a major evolution in aerospace and defence. The inexorable rise of digital capability has put within our grasp the most tantalising of possibilities; that robots can be used to perform the dull, dirty and/or dangerous tasks that we don’t want to do,” he said.

The BAE Systems led UK industry team has created Taranis to demonstrate precision ground target engagement and long range surveillance capabilities. As well as military uses, there are potential civil applications, including using them for geological and geographical surveys, protecting fisheries, search and rescue, plus oil pipeline surveillance.

Mr Whitehead outlined the four challenging areas of the Taranis project: autonomy, survivability, precision and cost. The system is autonomous so the objective was to take the workload associated with operating the system away from the commander so that he or she can focus on the aim of the mission. The aircraft has aspects of mission planning, response to threats, electronic countermeasures, the encryption of the communication links and other features contributing to its survivability.

It focuses on accurate positioning data for vehicles and targets and offers the opportunity to minimise collateral damage. Building on outputs and experience from Taranis, BAE Systems aims to reduce the cost of this class of air vehicle by adapting its shape, size and materials.

A number of demonstrator models have contributed to the technological progress and risk reduction in unmanned aircraft systems so far and the government and industry have so far invested around £250 million.

Taranis was conceived in 2006 and is another demonstrator but has incorporated all the technologies developed so far for unmanned aircraft systems in one ‘super stealthy’ system, said Mr Whitehead.

The aircraft will fly a representative mission as part of the demonstration programme and depending on what is learnt, the UK could end up with a mix of unmanned combat air vehicles and conventional aircraft.

“The Taranis programme will inform future decision-making about the size and shape of the UK air defence forces. It will also likely define the future of the military aircraft industry. This programme in many ways is at the heart of the question, what next in aviation,” said Mr Whitehead.

Notes for editors

  1. Nigel Whitehead is Group MD, Programmes and Support at BAE Systems and has responsibility for UK businesses including maritime, military air and information combat vehicles as well as the group’s shared operations. He is also a council member at the Academy. He previously served as Group MD of Military Air Solutions at BAE Systems where he has been active in defence programmes for 28 years. Prior to joining British Aerospace as an aerodynamicist, he worked for Rolls-Royce as a production engineering apprentice.
  2. Taranis was conceived in 2006 and is a joint project between BAE Systems and Rolls-Royce, QinetiQ, MOD, DSTL and GE Aviation. Cobham, Claverham, Triumph Group, APPH and others are also involved.
  3. The Lloyd’s register Educational Trust is an independent charity established in 2004. It funds education, training and research programmes in transportation, science, engineering, technology and the safety of life, worldwide for the benefit of all.
  4. Founded in 1976, the Royal Academy of Engineering promotes the engineering and technological welfare of the country. Our fellowship – comprising the UK’s most eminent engineers – provides the leadership and expertise for our activities, which focus on the relationships between engineering, technology, and the quality of life. As a national academy, we provide independent and impartial advice to Government; work to secure the next generation of engineers; and provide a voice for Britain’s engineering community.

For more information please contact

Sarah Griffiths at The Royal Academy of Engineering Tel. 020 7766 0655