Taranis in flight over an 'undisclosed' test location (BAE Systems)
On 5 February the wraps came off flight test progress with the UK’s classified stealth UCAV demonstrator, the BAE Systems Taranis. TIM ROBINSON caught up with Taranis Project Pilot and Mission Commander BOB FRASER.
Though it was first rolled out in 2010, until early last month the status and progress of BAE Systems Taranis’ UCAV demonstrator had been a closely guarded secret. The low-observable UAV prototype, designed to explore and inform choices for the UK MoD for the next generation of combat aircraft, had seemingly vanished — although informed observers noted that the likely testing place was Woomera, Australia, away from prying eyes. Even when a hint that the prototype had flown appeared in a Parliamentary report in late 2013, officials declined to confirm whether its maiden flight had taken place.
Low-speed taxi trials took place in the UK in April 2013 - amazingly without anyone reporting the unusual aircraft. (BAE Systems).
However, on 5 February at a press conference in central London, an intriguing glimpse inside this £185m ‘black project’ was allowed — with MoD and industry executives providing some details of flight test milestones and progress. The industry and government team which, as well as BAE Systems also includes Rolls-Royce, GE, QinetiQ and DE&S, revealed that the prototype had begun low-speed taxi tests in April 2013. Shipped to an ‘undisclosed test range’, high-speed taxi tests were followed by first flight on 10 August 2013. The flight lasted 15minutes in all. An unknown number of follow-on test flights in 2013 saw Taranis reach maximum duration of an hour in the air. The flight tests, according to BAE Systems, ‘surpassed all expectations’.
Bob Fraser - Taranis Project Pilot/Mission Commander (BAE Systems)
AEROSPACE caught up with the remote ‘pilot’ who ‘flew’ Taranis on its maiden flight last August, Bob Fraser of BAE Systems.
AEROSPACE: What’s your background on BAE’s manned and unmanned programmes?
BF: Well, I joined BAE Systems in 2000 and I flew the ATP. I fly the 146 at the moment. I’m a Jetstream 31 pilot and also the ASTRAEA programme commander. I also fly the PA-44 and occasionally the Diamond Twin. But on the unmanned side, I’m a pilot commander for Herti. I was the pilot for most of the flights of Mantis and here I find myself at Taranis.
A: Was there much crossover to Taranis from Herti, Mantis and also from ASTRAEA in terms of systems?
BF: Take the last one first. ASTRAEA — nothing because ASTRAEA is looking at a completely different side of the house, if you like. As far as Mantis and Herti are concerned, Herti is a much slower, much simpler aeroplane but there was some crossover from Mantis because of the lessons learned from Mantis. On the first flight of Mantis, it seemed to have a Dutch roll problem which we were very concerned about at the time. Having said that, it wasn’t a Dutch roll problem — our outer control loops were over-controlling our inner control loops, so it was trying very hard to stay on track and that gave us the impression of an aerodynamic fault. It was no aerodynamic fault. So, there were those sort of lessons that we learned for Taranis. Let’s not try to keep it within an inch of its track, you know, a few feet of its track is fine. When you do that, everything smooths down and it all becomes very straightforward. So, there were lessons learned from other programmes, yes. There wasn’t a huge amount of technology read across except I suppose some of our control systems are — you just tell it the different parameters to fit in, so some of that aspect is read across.
A: Were you involved in the slow-speed taxi tests at Warton?
BF: I was commander for all of it.
A: So, how did you keep it secret from people peeking over the fence?
BF: We had a security plan. There was a chap at the fence who caused us alarm. He did have a camera, so that was most concerning. But we stopped if we thought there was someone peering through the fence who we didn’t want to be there. But, surprisingly, very little activity.
"Aerodynamically, it was absolutely sound"
First flight was routine - according to Bob Fraser. (BAE Systems)
A: Would you agree that Taranis is probably the most advanced military aircraft that the UK has developed? How did the first flight go?
BF: I think it is in this particular area of air power, yes. It is the most advanced aircraft that we’ve produced, so, yes. The maiden flight was very exciting but it was also very routine because we had rehearsed and rehearsed and it flew exactly as the rehearsals. So, while I was also very excited, it also felt like a bit of an anti-climax because it all worked perfectly.
A: What was the control station set-up like, is it like a cockpit on the ground or a mouse and a computer?
BF: No, it’s just a series of data screens. We have a separate pilot who’s there to intervene should the need arise because the aircraft flies automatically most of the time. We had a team of ten. On top of that, there was our Chief Engineer and also our Range Safety Officer, so a total of 12 at the ground control station. Five of them were purely monitoring the information that came back and the other five, including myself, were there to actually run the aircraft so, it was very much like an office really with a window out over the airfield.
A: What was the biggest surprise that came up during testing?
BF: The biggest surprise to me, because I’ve been involved in other programmes, is how well this aircraft flew. Aerodynamically, it was absolutely sound. It was very crisp in its pitching and in roll, speed control was excellent, it got airborne exactly where we expected it to and in exactly where we expected it to land. So, in many ways it was, as I’ve said before, routine. There was no major excitement other that the fact than this thing which looks a little space age got airborne and came back.
Out of the black - Taranis represents the cutting edge of military aerospace technology. (BAE Systems)
But testing of Taranis, described as “comparable” in its flight test achievements to the EAP, the forerunner of the Typhoon, is not yet over — and will feed into the Anglo-French FCAS project. Indeed a decision on a new phase of testing is imminent. With this programme, the UK is still at the very forefront of military aerospace technology.