A sleek British-made drone resembling a flying arrowhead has begun test flights above an undisclosed test range in a military program that will greatly expand the country's unmanned capabilities.
The flight details of the $302-million program were revealed for the first time Wednesday at a briefing held in London by British defense giant BAE Systems.
The experimental drone, named "Taranis" after the Celtic god of thunder, conducted a number of flights last year beginning in August. It is Britain's first stealthy, jet powered drone.
The massive Taranis aircraft was first unveiled to the public by BAE to much fanfare in July 2010, but since then it has been cloaked in secrecy.
"Only a very limited number of scientists and engineers have ever been given full access," the company said.
The drone, which resembles a mini-B-2 stealth bomber, is being developed by the company for a variety of missions.
With a 41-foot wingspan and 33-foot length, its radar-evading design could enable it to slip behind enemy lines to knock out radar installations, clearing the way for fighters and bombers. It could also fend off hostile attacks or relay intelligence information.
"The first flight of Taranis represents a major landmark for UK aviation," Nigel Whitehead, BAE Systems group managing director, said in a statement. "The demonstrator is the most advanced air system ever conceived, designed and built in the UK. It truly represents an evolution of everything that has come before it."
In its first flight, the aircraft has demonstrated a perfect take off, rotation, 'climb out' and landing. A number of other test flights have now taken place reaching up to one hour in duration and at a variety of altitudes and speeds.
BAE said the technological advances made through the Taranis program will help the "Royal Air Force make decisions on the future mix of manned and unmanned fast jet aircraft and how they will operate together in a safe and effective manner."
In July, the U.S. Navy's first jet-powered stealth aircraft made an arrested landing aboard an aircraft carrier for the first time. The X-47B, built by Northrop Grumman Corp., is seen as a milestone in drone technology.
Currently, combat drones are controlled remotely by a human pilot. But the X-47B is designed to carry out a combat mission controlled almost entirely by a computer. A human pilot would design its flight path and send it on its way; a computer program would guide it from a ship to the target and back.
The X-47B is set to be integrated with manned aircraft around a ship and on the flight deck for the first time this year.