Fearsome UK Robot Aircraft Is Semi-Autonomous and Will Fly in 2013

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There’s a robotic arms race on. We recently covered the US Navy's X-47B drone, a stealth jet capable of landing autonomously on an aircraft carrier. Well, not to be outdone by its trans-Atlantic ally, the UK’s Ministry of Defense (MoD) is said to be soon testing a superdrone called Taranis. The drone is designed to fly intercontinental missions at supersonic speeds, undected by radar—and almost completely free of human direction.

Named after the Celtic god of thunder, Taranis is a £142.5 million ($223.25 million) project under development by British aerospace firm BAE and the MoD since December 2006. BAE says Taranis will “push the boundaries” of stealth and autonomy.

According to International Business Times, “Taranis will incorporate technology allowing it to use on-board computers to perform airborne manoeuvres, avoid threats and identify targets.” Flight controllers need only be consulted for authorization to attack.

While images of remote-controlled toy planes and quadrotors may enter your head when you imagine drones—Taranis is no toy. The stealth craft measures 37 feet (11 meters) in length and has a 32 foot  (10 meter) wingspan. It is capable of supersonic flight and intercontinental missions, munitions in tow.

The US is also working on next generation drones. The Navy's X-47B is likewise a largely autonomous stealth craft. In 2013, the X-47B will likely become the first robotic fighter to autonomously land on and take off from an aircraft carrier—a notoriously difficult maneuver even for human pilots. Further testing in 2014 will include autonomous in-flight refueling, extending the X-47B's range and mission capability.

Simply put, if this is the next generation of drone technology, it’s simultaneously awe inspiring and terrifying. No wonder drone warfare is such a hot button topic right now.

The Obama administration recently released a memo rationalizing the killing of US citizens by drone, without trial, if the individuals pose an imminent threat to national security and cannot be captured. In December, Human Rights Watch published a report calling governments to ban development of drone technology. The report was taken seriously enough for the Pentagon to issue a rule that humans will always make the decision behind any robotic attack.

But the threat of governments misusing drone technology pales in comparison to the threat of criminals or terrorists using drones. Singularity University’s own Marc Goodman has written extensively about drone technology falling into the wrong hands. In 2011, Rezwan Ferdaus plotted to detonate explosives at the Pentagon and Capitol using a remote-controlled drone aircraft. Colombian drug traffickers use remote-controlled submarines to smuggle cocaine.

These fringe groups need not even have their own drone. As Goodman notes, “In a world where all things connected to the Internet are hackable, so too are drones.” As drone technology includes the likes of Taranis—need we fear intercontinental stealth drones hijacked by hackers? Hopefully not, but it’s a debate worth having earlier rather than later.

No technology is completely safe from abuse. Rakes and shovels are useful in the garden or can be turned into weapons; drugs can make us feel better or poison us; and drones can airlift supplies to remote areas or mistakenly gun down innocents. The idea isn’t to halt the march of progress but to anticipate its dark side and do our best to prevent misuse.

Image Credit: BAE Systems

Jason Dorrier

Jason is managing editor of Singularity Hub. He cut his teeth doing research and writing about finance and economics before moving on to science, technology, and the future. He is curious about pretty much everything, and sad he'll only ever know a tiny fraction of it all.

Discussion — 10 Responses

  • DigitalGalaxy March 11, 2013 on 4:18 pm

    Easy. Keep all drone-controlling machines off the Internet. Then they can’t be hacked without physically breaking into the computer facility. And don’t use unencrypted commands for the drones.

    Drones have all kinds of uses; forget fanning out to find a missing person, a drone will find them in minutes. There’s a boat trapped out at sea in a storm? Just send drones out there, and don’t risk any more lives. Delivering supplies to remote locations.

    It is risky that there will be a police state, where drones are watching your every move. But, they have that in Britain already, with security cameras everywhere. It’s no different than that, wherther the cameras are fixed or mobile.

    As far as drones killing citizens without trial, that seems not that different from police using a sniper to kill a hostage-taking guy in a house without a trial. The guy was going crazy and taking hostages. If drones are used by police for that purpose, that’s not so bad. But, if they are used outside that purpose…then we have a problem.

    • Wow DigitalGalaxy March 12, 2013 on 7:11 pm

      Retarded mindset. What make you think the machine wouldn’t malfunction or programming gone wrong as Terminator, robocop, irobot, galactic… etc imagination film warn us? Science fiction technology could become reality and so as those flaws.

      • DigitalGalaxy Wow March 12, 2013 on 8:16 pm

        That’s true, but if a drone malfunctions to the point of going crazy, it will probably just crash. Also, there are programs that you can write to stop a robot from taking certain actions. Like “don’t active this program without a certain order”.

        You do bring up a good point that armed drones are always dangerous, no matter what. But, unarmed drones are not, and that is where a lot of the controversy is about. It’s about unarmed drones spying on people.

  • Jeff Call March 12, 2013 on 12:55 am

    Skynet’s first move.

  • palmytomo March 12, 2013 on 2:21 am

    Would you rather have one of those, or a local hospital , a university, or housing for about a thousand people?

  • Ivan Malagurski March 15, 2013 on 10:18 pm

    Do we really need more killer robots?
    The technology so is cool, but the potential uses are very troubling…

  • Vector March 21, 2013 on 3:09 pm

    I grow tired of these war toys. The technology amazes me, but the uses, though not all violent or oppressive, carry with them the potential to cause great unwarranted harm.

    I hope that one day we, the dominant species of this planet, will reject all needless death and suffering. Until then, I am aware — and make no mistake about my awareness on this issue — that SOME conflict, whereby these toys of death may be somewhat necessary to deploy, MAY occur and otherwise be unavoidable.

    To further enforce the importance of the issue, read the following snippet from the Farewell Address of the former POTUS, Dwight D. Eisenhower:

    “In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the militaryindustrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.

    We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.”

    May we all meditate on true peace, and may all of our lives be eternally devoted to the betterment of ALL people, regardless of the minor, almost insignificant, differences between ourselves. We must always remember that true peace depends on You and I.

    • Rick Partington Vector October 14, 2013 on 6:42 am

      war toys, give us great new products, the tech always trickles down
      most of our current way of life is due to war inventions, be it aircraft, new alloys and fuels
      , medical equipment…etc. the list is endless