Large Aerial Systems
|MQ-9 Reaper||MQ-9B Protector||Watchkeeper||Taranis|
|Tempest||‘Loyal Wingman’||Zephyr||Project Aether|
Smaller Systems – Small, Mini, Micro and Nano
|‘Swarming drones’||Desert Hawk III||Puma AE||Stalker VXE30|
|Thor||Skydio X2D||Magni-X||Indago 4|
|Ghost||Drone D40||Bug||Black Hornet|
Maritime Aerial systems
|Project Vampire||Project Vixen||‘Heavy lift’||Project Proteus
[Last updated Feb 2023]
The RAF began using MQ-9 Reaper drones in Afghanistan in October 2007 with the first British drone strike taking place at the end of May 2008. 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 All British Reaper drones were withdrawn from Afghanistan by the end of 2014.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. In August 2015, a British Reaper targeted and killed Cardiff-born Reyaad Khan near Raqqa, in Syria. Subsequently, after a parliamentary vote in December 2015, use of force against ISIS was extended to Syria. While the UK will not officially confirm where UK Reapers on operations against ISIS in Iraq and Syria are based, it is believed to be Ali Al Salem air base in Kuwait. From there, local aircrew launch the drones, but control is then handed over to RAF air crews operating from RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire. RAF crews were also operating UK Reaper drones from Creech air force base in Nevada, but this ceased in June 2022.
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. The MoD confirmed in November 2021 that an additional MQ-9A Reaper had been procured under a ‘Second Operating Location Alternate Reaper (SOLAR)’ requirement, bringing the number of UK armed drones back up to ten. However in December 2021 a UK Reaper (ZZ209) crashed on landing at an undisclosed location. As of October 2022 the Reaper was still awaiting repair.
In 2019, UK Reapers were believed to have been undertaking military operations outside of Operation Shader (the UK’s operation against ISIS in Iraq and Syria) although the government refused to disclose the purpose of the sorties or where they were taking place. At the time of writing (Feb 2023) we continue to await the decision of a March 2022 FoI Tribunal seeking information about these operations.
MQ-9B Protector (SkyGuardian)
In October 2015, 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 which General Atomics call ‘SkyGuardian’ but the UK is choosing to call ‘The Protector’. The new drone is due to be in service with the RAF from around mid-2024. An initial aircraft was handed over to the RAF in October 2022 but will remain in the US for testing and training purposes.
General Atomics brought a SkyGuardian to the UK for flight trials in summer 2021. During the visit, the Chief of the Air Staff insisted that the project’s financial troubles – which has seen costs increased by 74% – were over.
A key difference between SkyGuardian/Protector and Reaper is that the new drone is being built to standards that will allow it to be certified to fly unrestricted (that is, not segregated) within UK airspace. As the UK is the first country to purchase the new aircraft, a key issue for the MoD will be convincing airspace regulators and the public that it is safe to fly in UK skies.
Protector will be based at RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire. The MoD has announced the creation of a global training hub at Waddington to train UK and overseas pilots to use SkyGuardian/Protector.
For more details read our detailed briefing on Protector.
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 and 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.
Seven Watchkeeper drones have crashed in the UK during testing or training exercises since 2014. A small number of Watchkeepers are currently deployed to Cyprus for training purposes, while others are used for training flights over Salisbury Plain.
Watchkeeper was deployed to help spot refugees attempting to cross the Channel in September 2020, but the operation was quietly ended the following month. It was reported in January 2022 that talks were on-going between the MoD and Elbit Systems in regard to a possible mid-life upgrade. In September 2022, Ministers stated that £1.31 billion had been spent on Watchkeeper to date. In December 2022, Romania signed a contract to purchase up to seven Watchkeeper drones.
Taranis is a demonstrator aircraft jointly funded by the Ministry of Defence and BAE Systems. It was unveiled in 2010 and went through a series of flight-tests and trials in Australia.
Taranis has three flight modes: manual, automatic and autonomous. 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 said about Taranis since 2016 other than ‘lessons learned’ from the development of it will feed into future projects such as Tempest (see below). However, it is possible that Taranis or a derivative is being developed in secret.
Tempest / Global Combat Air Programme (GCAP) (Formerly FCAS)
Work to develop a new UK military aircraft/drone since development work on Taranis (above) has gone through a number of significant changes over the past decade.
In 2012 and 2014 the UK and France signed agreements and committed funding to develop a new Anglo-French unmanned aircraft dubbed the Future Combat Air System (FCAS). This new drone would be based on Taranis and the European-developed nEUROn. However, seemingly in light of the Brexit decision, in 2017 France signed a deal with Germany to develop a different aircraft and the Anglo-French programme fell by the wayside.
In response, the UK announced that it was developing a new ‘optionally manned’ FCAS dubbed ‘Tempest’. The UK committed £2 billion to the initial phase of the project and began cooperating with Italy and Sweden on the project. However in December 2022, the UK announced that it was merging work on Tempest into a new joint initiative with Italy and Japan to develop a new ‘next-generation fighter jet’. “The ‘Global Combat Air Programme” will bring together Government and industry from the three nations to deliver a generational leap in capability” said the Ministry of Defence.
It is unclear at this stage if the new aircraft will have an on-board pilot, be remotely-controlled/autonomous or have both options. The programme has regularly been described as aiming to build a system of systems. In December 2020, an MoD briefing on Tempest declared that anticipated capabilities include the use of artificial intelligence to assist the pilot, the ability to manage drones in support of the fighter (see ‘Loyal wingman’ below), and ‘all the advancements that came along with previous generation aircraft’ including stealth and data fusion.
It is not anticipated that there will be any further financial decision about UK spending on the new programme until 2025. However, there have already been serious questions raised about the cost of the project and suggestions that the new project will eventually have to merge with the French/German programme.
Loyal Wingman drones /LANCA / Project Mosquito
In July 2019, the MoD announced that the RAF’s Rapid Capabilities Office had awarded contracts to three companies/consortium to develop a new ‘loyal wingman’ unmanned drone, as part of the Lightweight Affordable Novel Combat Aircraft (LANCA) programme, under a project named ‘Mosquito’.
The idea of ‘loyal wingman’ drones is to fly alongside or slightly ahead of larger military aircraft and undertake various tasks including surveillance, electronic warfare, laser-guiding weapons onto targets, or even to carry out air-to-air or air-to-ground strikes. The drones would be under the control of the larger aircraft but have a high degree of autonomy.
In January 2021, the MoD awarded a £30m development contract to a team led by Spirit AeroSystems in Belfast to produce a full-scale drone for a test programme beginning in 2023. However, 18 months later in June 2022, the MoD abruptly cancelled the project saying “continued investment didn’t make a huge amount of sense.” Soon after, the Chief of the Air Staff Air Chief Marshal Sir Mike Wigston, announced there would be a new process to acquire drones in this area.
Around the same time, BAE Systems unveiled two prototype ‘loyal wingman’ drones at the Fairford Airshow, which it said were the result of on-going concept studies. The first, named ‘UAS1’, was the smaller of the two which would be able to fly for around 4 hours, undertaking intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, electronic- or ground-attack, with a 40kg (88lb) sensor or weapons payload. The larger of the two, named ‘UAS2’, had a planned 5 hour flight time and would be capable of carrying 500kg (1,100lb) of weapons.
In September 2022, the RAF announced that it was to open a new competition aimed at acquiring “scalable uncrewed systems” in the area of loyal wingman drones. Little so far been made public, except that a ‘secret UK eyes only’ industry day was held on the issue at High Wycombe in November 2022.
Zephyr is a solar-powered, electric, High Altitude, Long Endurance (HALE) drone ordered by the UK Ministry of Defence but not yet (as far as known) in service. The drone, built by Airbus, is designed to linger at altitudes of about 70,000 feet (21 kilometres) for months at a time for surveillance or to provide a temporary boost to communications. These type of aircraft are described as HAPS (high altitude, pseudo-satellites). Zephyr has a 25-meter (82-foot) wingspan, weighs 75 kilos (165 pounds) and is hand-launched by three people.
While three aircraft have been ordered at a cost thought to be around £15m, one crashed during a test flight in Australia in March 2019 with a second crash of a Zephyr occurring in September 2019 (although it is not clear if this was a UK ordered system). Ministers told parliament in August 2020 that lessons learned from these crashes were being taken forward in a new test programme but that had been delayed by Covid-19. Subsequent flight trials, which took place from Arizona in July and August 2021, were “an important step” towards operationalising the capability said the MoD in late 2021.
A further Zephyr trial flight – conducted by Airbus but apparently for the US Army – began in June 2022. The aircraft broke its own 36-day non-stop flight record and was nearing the 64 day all-time flight record when it crashed in southwestern United States.
Despite continued crashes, commentators expect Zephyr to continue on its development path.
The MoD announced in December 2021 that it was seeking to acquire a capability for “ultra-persistent wide area communications with ISR, using stratospheric uncrewed air systems that can be rapidly manoeuvred to an area of interest that is anywhere in the world.” While Zephyr (above) would be in the running to fulfil this role, other companies will likely put forward their own systems including BAE Systems and their HAPS drone PHASA-35.
To date, little has been revealed about how this ‘requirement’ is developing other than US company Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) issuing a press release saying that it had “successfully demonstrated” its rapidly deployable High-Altitude Balloon to the MoD as part of project.
Small Aerial Systems – Small, Mini, Micro and Nano
While we are now seeing the term ‘drone swarm’ being used regularly in the media, care need to be taken here. Although we have begun to see numbers of small and medium size drones being deployed together in a group or mass, that is not a ‘swarm’. As drone expert, David Hambling makes clear in his helpful summary of the issue, “true swarm behaviour arises from a simple set of rules which each of the participating members follows, with no central controller.”
So, although we are beginning to see individuals controlling multiple drones or a number of drones being guided to one location by GPS or other means, that is not a true drone swarm (which requires autonomous capability in each drone) as understood by scientists and engineers. While some military manufacturers and militaries claim they are testing or even deploying ‘drone swarms’, they may in fact mean that they are testing drones operating in a group, rather than a true ‘drone swarm’.
UK and Drone Swarms
The UK MoD has been undertaking development work around the potential deployment of drone swarms for several years (including under Project Alvina) although much of what has happened remains undisclosed. The then Chief of the Air Staff, Stephen Hillier told the Air and Space Power Conference in July 2019 that he was re-forming RAF Squadron 216 to develop drone swarming capability in order to deliver it to the frontline.
In October 2020, Italian company Leonardo, revealed that it had conducted a live trial of a swarming drones in association with the RAF. During the demo, a number of small, remotely-piloted Callen Lenz drones were equipped with an electronic decoy, allowing each drone to individually deliver a highly-sophisticated jamming effect. In addition, the decoy packages were programmed and navigated to work collaboratively to cause maximum confusion. The company press release – subsequently removed – said “information gained from the demonstration will be used to inform potential future UK programmes to acquire an autonomous swarming drone capability.”
Freedom of Information responses to Drone Wars UK in July 2022 revealed that in spite of claims about the progress of the RAF’s swarming drones programme, 216 Squadron – set up to deliver the capacity – had yet to undertake any testing or trialling of swarming drones and had just four personnel assigned to it. The new Chief of the Air Staff, Sir Mike Wigston, told a conference a few weeks later that the Squadron had ‘overseen’ industry testing of swarming drones and that he had a “futuristic and ambitious” vision for the capability, with plans to increase the capability year by year.
Beyond the Air Force, a number of trials have of what have been described as ‘swarming drones’ have been undertaken by the British army and Royal Marines.
In January 2021 the MoD announced that it had conducted a large-scale demonstration of “swarming drones” in Cumbria as part of its ‘Many Drones Make Light Work’ programme. The demonstration consisted of five different types and sizes of small fixed-wing drones, with different operational capabilities, together with six different payload types. Later that year, the Royal Marines conducted an exercise using multiple types of small drones which it described as trialling swarming drones.
In March 2022, Israeli company Elbit Systems said that it had been contracted “to provide five autonomous swarms of six unmanned aircraft systems each” to the British Army – likely Thor (see below). In September 2022, the Army said that it had undertaken a test of one of these ‘swarming drone’ systems during an exercise on Salisbury Plain.
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 2020 the MoD reported that there were 229 Desert Hawk III drones held by UK armed forces, with around a total of £70 million spent on the system.
In December 2022, the MoD announced that under the Tiquila programme it had awarded £129m contract to Lockheed Martin to purchase Stalker and Indago 4 drones (see below) to replace the Desert Hawk III by the end of 2024.
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The Puma AE drone is a small, drone designed for land and maritime operations. Each system comprises three air vehicles and two ground stations and can be launched by hand or by a rail system, with the drone capable of landing on water or land. Its primary use is for surveillance and intelligence gathering and is equipped with both electro-optical and infrared cameras, while an under-wing bay allows for additional payloads including communications relay and laser marker systems.
The UK has trialled the system on Royal Navy ships and it was deployed with the UK Task Group in Mali as part of Operation Newcombe which ended in November 2022. The drone is just over 4½ft long, with a wingspan of 9ft and weights around 12 lbs and can fly for up to two hours with a top speed of 50 mph. In Autumn 2021, the Royal Navy announced that it has acquired a further 12 Puma drones.
The UK signed a contract with Lockheed Martin to acquire 105 Stalker VXE30 fixed wing, vertical take-off and land, drones as part of its Tiquila programme in December 2023. The drones will come into service by the end of 2024.
The drone, which has a 5m wingspan and weights 20kg is designed to give small military formations their own intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capability. The drone can fly for around 8 hours and cover around 60 miles. The systems is also in operation with US special forces.
Israeli company Elbit systems say they have supplied the UK MoD with “five autonomous swarms of six unmanned aircraft systems each” for the British Army’s Robotics and Autonomous Systems (RAS) project. It is believed that the Thor mini-UAS is being supplied.
Video of system being demonstrated (to Netherlands military) in Northern Israel in Oct 2021.
The company say that the system will use its TORCH-X RAS command and control systems, which “provides automated UAS mission management aided by artificial intelligence and machine learning, as well as full autonomy solutions for the platform level”. It is likely that the system is being trialled rather than being used in an operational capacity at this stage.
In May 2022, US company Marlborough Communications announced that it had signed a £3m contract to provide an unspecified number of Skydio X2D nano drones to the UK MoD. The procurement is being undertaken by the MoD’s Future Capabilities Group as part of a “buy-and-try-at-scale procurement model, which puts technologically advanced equipment in the hands of troops far quicker than would traditionally expected.”
The Skydio X2D is unarmed and weighs about 3 pounds, and when folded up is about a foot long by 5.5 inches wide.
Israeli company, Elbit Systems, announced in January 2023 that it had been contracted by the UK Ministry of Defence to supply the British Army with micro drone Magni-X. This is in addition to the Thor drones mentioned above.
The new drones will be delivered by mid-2023 according to the company. The vertical take-off and landing quadcopter drones weigh 2kg (4.4lb) and can carry a variety of payloads, including an electro-optical/infrared sensor. Flight time is up to 1h.
Indago 4 is a small, backpack drone, weighing just over only 2kg. The UK purchased 159 in December 2022 as part of Project Tiquila.
The manufacturer, Lockheed Martin, says the drone can be deployed in just two minutes with a range of approximately eight miles. The drone is equipped with a high-resolution camera system which provides capability to identify objects, vehicles and weapons, day or night.
The Royal Marines and the RAF Regiment have used Anduril industries Ghost drone in trials and exercises although it is not clear if it is currently in service. The drone, along with its ‘maverick designer’ has somewhat of an overblown reputation in the press. It is regularly billed as being an ‘autonomous drone’ that can ‘distinguish between friend and foe’.
In short, the Ghost drone is a vertical take-off and land helicopter with a flight time of around 55 minutes and a range of 12 km.
The DefendTex Drone40 (D40) is a nano UAV/loitering munition that was deployed with British forces in Mali between late 2020 and November 2022. The systems can be launched by hand or alternately projected from a grenade launcher. According to the manufacturer it has a maximum flying time of 60 minutes and maximum range of 12 km.
The D40 can carry a small munition but according to officers in Mali, “the version we are using is hand launched and does not include any munitions – it is purely used for surveillance and reconnaissance.” In February 2021, the MoD said: “UK Armed Forces deployed in Mali for UN peacekeeping operations are equipped with the DefendTex D40 and other state-of-the-art Unmanned Aerial Systems to give them the best possible situational awareness.”
UAVTek’s ‘Bug’ is a nano-drone weighing 196g – similar to the weight of a smartphone – with 40-minute battery life and a 2km range. In conjunction with BAE Systems, the British Army have bought 30 bug drones to trial.
The Bug drone has a normal payload capacity of up to 50g, but it has capability to carry payloads of up to 100g while still remaining within the 250g weight limit.
The drone can carry a range of systems such as microphone, loudspeaker, white/infrared (IR)/red light, interchangeable lenses, mapping camera, thermal camera and distraction device. The company says the drone is being developed to also act as a listening device.
Bug drone seen in a recent army recruitment video
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.
In August 2022, the UK announced that it was jointly procuring 850 Black Hornet drones with the Norwegian government to supply to Ukraine forces in a $9.2m deal.
Maritime Aerial Drones
Surface and underwater marine drones are beyond the scope of this review but the Royal Navy and Marines are developing a number of aerial systems.
Project Vampire seeks to acquire a new fixed-wing aerial drone for the Royal Navy to undertake intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, as well as electromagnetic operations and threat simulation.
Following the testing of a QinetiQ Banshee Jet 80+ drone on HMS Prince of Wales aircraft carrier in September 2021 (pic right), in March 2022 the MoD awardee QinetiQ a £6.6 million contract to supply 4 of the drones by October 2023. Further drones are to be supplied in the following two years, with the contract containing an option for up to ten vehicles, bringing the potential total up to 16 drones.
Project Vixen aims to examine the use of fixed-wing ‘loyal wingman’ type drones aboard the UK’s aircraft carriers in support of the UK’s F-35 aircraft. It was thought that the loyal wingman drone most likely to be used would be the ‘Mosquito’, a loyal wingman drone being developed by Spirit Aero, or a derivative of that system. However, that project was unexpectedly cancelled in July 2022 (see above).
Heavy Lift: Malloy T-600 / Windracer Ultra
The UK aims to develop a new type of ‘heavy lift’ drones mainly, but not exclusively, for use in the marine domain. Previously, the Royal Navy has undertaken test programmes with ‘heavy lift’ drones that can carry payloads of 100kg over long distance and more than 250kg over a shorter distance to re-supply its ships.
The drones tested were the Malloy T-150 large quadcopter and the Windracer’s Ultra drone. The Ultra is an all-aluminium cargo which has been tested on commercial Royal Mail runs in the Orkney Islands and Scilly Isles. Malloy’s T-600 is an upsized version of its cargo-delivery drones, which are in military and commercial service today.
In the most recent trials, the T-600 flew with a 550-pound payload over a shorter distance, while the fixed-wing Ultra flew a 220-pound payload over a distance of 540 nm and dropped it onto a mock-up of a Queen Elizabeth-class carrier flight deck. Both Malloy and Windracers were given a £300,000 contract to further develop their drones.
In May 2022, The Times reported that 20-30 Malloy T150 heavy lift drones, which have been in trials with the Royal Marines, would be delivered to the Ukrainian armed forces as part of a UK support package
In August 2022, the MoD published a contract notice announcing a new Uncrewed Air Systems Heavy Lift Capability (UASHLC) Framework, in which one or more aircraft are to be selected and their development accelerated as a means for the RN to access ‘current and future emerging cutting-edge capabilities’, according to Shephard News.
Separately, but no doubt related, BAE Systems have teamed up with Malloy Aeronautics to develop an all-electric variant called T-650. As well as carrying up to 300Kg over 30km, the drone can be configured to carry and launch a Stingray Missile and has been photographed carrying Brimstone missiles.
In July 2022, the MoD awarded a £60m contract to Leonardo to design and develop an uncrewed helicopter demonstrator for the Royal Navy to be used for anti-submarine warfare and other scenarios. The helicopter – likely to be similar to the US Fire Scout drone – is expected to have a first flight in 2025.
Trials will test the capability of the aircraft to drop “sonobuoys” – small tube-shaped buoys that track and communicate submarine activity – enabling the aircraft to alert a crewed helicopter and call for support if a submarine is located.
‘Peregrine’ (Schiebel Camcopter S-100) – Flexible Tactical Unmanned Air System (FTUAS)
In May 2021, the MoD announced an Urgent Operational Requirement (UOR) for a Flexible Tactical Unmanned Air System (FTUAS) to operate from Royal Navy ships to counter threat from crewed and uncrewed attack craft.
In February 2023, the MoD awarded a £20m contract to Schiebel for its Camcopter S-100 with Thales partnering as systems integrator. The unarmed drone will carry “a range of high precision Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) sensors and systems.”
The capability, named ‘Peregrine’ is aimed at “protecting British interests in the Gulf” and “will enable round-the-clock surveillance of targets over Gulf waters and will be available for a spectrum of operational tasks” from mid-2024 according to the MoD.