British Drones: An Overview

[Last updated May 2019]

MQ-9 Reaper

The UK RAF began using Reaper drones in Afghanistan in October 2007 with the first British drone strike taking place at the end of May 2008. While the drones themselves are located overseas, they are operated by RAF air crew from Creech Air Force Base in Nevada and, from April 2013, RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire.

After a UK Reaper crashed in April 2008, additional Reapers were purchased bringing the number first up to five, and then, in July 2014, to ten. All British Reaper drones were withdrawn from Afghanistan by the end of 2014

In October 2014, RAF Reaper drones were deployed for operations against ISIS in Iraq and then, from December 2015, in Syria. Before Parliament authorised the use of force in Syria, a British Reaper targeted and killed Cardiff-born Reyaad Khan in Syria. While the UK will not officially confirm where UK Reapers on operations in Iraq and Syria are based, it is believed to be Ali Al Salem air base in Kuwait.

In January 2019, the MoD confirmed that one British Reaper was in the US for decommissioning as it had reached the end of its life, reducing the UK’s Reaper fleet to nine.

SkyGuardian / ‘Protector’

In October 2015, the then Prime Minister, David Cameron, announced that the UK would double its fleet of armed drones by acquiring the newest version of the Predator drone.  While General Atomics call the UAV ‘SkyGuardian’, the UK has chosen to name it ‘Protector’. The Protector drone is due to be in service with the RAF from around 2024, but initial aircraft are likely to be delivered to the RAF earlier.

A key difference between the new SkyGuardian/Protector version of the Predator is that it is being built to standards that will allow it to be certified to fly within unrestricted airspace.  The UK will be the first country to purchase the new aircraft and a key issue will be convincing airspace regulators that it is safe to fly in UK skies.  An initial flight of the aircraft into the UK, which took place in July 2018, saw regulators put in place severe restrictions to keep other aircraft away from the drone.

 

Watchkeeper

Watchkeeper is a large unarmed drone operated by the British Army rather than the RAF. It is assigned to the Royal Artillery and its primary purpose is to target in artillery and rocket strikes.

Watchkeeper was built jointly by Thales UK and the Israeli company Elbit Systems. It is based on the Elbit’s Hermes 450 drone. Fifty-four Watchkeepers were built under a £1 billion contract and were originally due to be in service in 2011. Much delayed, a small number of Watchkeepers were deployed to Afghanistan in the final weeks of UK operations there in late 2014.

Five Watchkeeper drones have crashed in the UK during testing or training exercises since 2014.

 

Taranis

Taranis is a demonstrator aircraft jointly funded to the tune of £185m by the Ministry of Defence and BAE Systems (with a raft of other UK industry partners). It is not currently in service.

It was first unveiled in 2010 and has been through a series of flight-test trials in Australia.  Taranis has three flight modes. According to BAE Systems, when in automatic flight – the primary mode for take-off, general flying and landing – Taranis is essentially following 3D waypoints. When in autonomous mode, however, the aircraft “starts to think and self-navigate”.

“It can self-navigate within a boundary of set constraints,” flight-test engineers told the media. “It does have limitations on what we give it in the mission plan – it can only fly in certain areas – but it does think for itself, it will navigate, and it will search for targets.” The third mode, manual, provides a fail-safe, although this was rarely used during test flights. Little has been heard of Taranis since 2016 other than ‘lessons learned’ from the development of Taranis will feed into future projects.

Future Combat Air System (FCAS) / Tempest

In 2012 and 2014 the UK and France signed agreements and committed funding to develop a new Anglo-French unmanned aircraft, dubbed Future Combat Air System (FCAS). This new drone would be based on Taranis and the European-developed nEUROn.  In 2016 BAE Systems told the press that while British rules of military engagement do not permit drones to attack without human sanction the new aircraft will be developed with the capability to strike autonomously should the rules change.

However, seemingly in light of the Brexit decision, in 2017 France signed a deal with Germany to develop a new aircraft and the Anglo-French programme appears to have fallen by the wayside.

In response the UK announced that it was developing a new unmanned or ‘optionally manned’ aircraft initially dubbed Tempest. While Tempest received a great deal of media coverage, it is hard to see much substance behind the PR with some arguing that it was more significant politically than technologically or aeronautically.

Its seems likely that the Tempest project is at least partly posturing and positioning ahead of likely future alignment on European drone development post-Brexit. Importantly, despite talk of government and industry ‘pledges’ of £2bn, there will be no financial decision about government spending on Tempest until 2025.

Zephyr

Zephyr is a solar-powered, electric, High Altitude, Long Endurance (HALE) drone ordered by the UK Ministry of Defence but not yet in service. The drone, built by Airbus, is designed to linger at an altitude of about 70,000 feet (21 kilometres) for months at a time for surveillance or to provide a temporary boost to communications.

While three aircraft have been ordered at a cost thought to be around £15m, one is reported to have crashed during a test flight in Australia in March 2019.

The craft, which has a 25-meter (82-foot) wingspan, weighs 75 kilos (165 pounds) and is hand-launched by three people.

Desert Hawk III

The Desert Hawk III is a battery-powered small drone in service with the British Army. It was developed by Lockheed Martin in 2002 and has been through a number of upgrades.

The drone is hand-launched and can fly for around one hour with a radius of around fifteen kilometres. In April 2018 the MoD reported that there were 221 Desert Hawk III drones held by UK armed forces, with around a total of £70 million spent on the system.

 

Black Hornet

Black Hornet is a nano (sometimes called mini) drone that fits in the palm of a hand and weighs less than 200 grams. It has a full-motion video camera and is primarily used by soldiers to explore in and around buildings. It has a range of around 300 metres.

160 were procured in 2013 at a cost of £20 million for use in Afghanistan and then retired in 2017. However in 2019 Gavin Williamson ordered 30 more Black Hornet Mk3 from Norwegian company FLIR Systems at a cost of £1.4 million to further explore the use of Nano drones.