A month after a senior UN official condemned the CIA drone strike programme as creating a “PlayStation mentality” that could spread to other countries, Janes has reported that UK unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) operations in Afghanistan have reached a new high.

In the six months to May 2010, the British Army’s Elbit Systems Hermes 450 and Lockheed Martin Desert Hawk 3 flew “nearly 9,000 hours combined in just over 4,500 sorties”. UK forces have also reportedly launched attacks using armed drones over 80 times since May 2008, yet all requests for information on their use and resulting civilian casualty figures have so far been refused.

In a report to the UN Human Rights Council published on 3 June 2010, Philip Alston, the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings accused the US of inventing a “law of 9/11” to issue the CIA with a “licence to kill” that, if copied by other countries, could lead to “chaos”.

The secretive programme has already killed hundreds of people, many in Pakistan’s tribal belt. Alston also criticised those “intelligence agencies, which by definition are determined to remain unaccountable except to their own paymasters” and “have no place in running programmes that kill people in other countries”.

Combat UAV unveiled

Regardless, as the Financial Times reported, “Robot wars came a step closer after BAE Systems unveiled the UK’s first unmanned aircraft that can pilot itself and strike targets as far away as Afghanistan”.

A Taranis drone robot
BAE’s “Taranis” UAV is named after the Celtic god of thunder

Taranis is equipped to attack ground targets and can be controlled from anywhere in the world via satellite communications. Costing £142.5 million, it was developed by an industry team made up of BAE, Rolls-Royce, Qinetiq and GE Aviation, in partnership with the Ministry of Defence.

Taranis “is a prelude to the next generation of fighting capability”, said Nigel Whitehead, group managing director of programmes and support at BAE. “If we are not on top of that, there will be no future for UK aircraft capability.”

Air Chief Marshal Simon Bryant, commander-in-chief of the Royal Air Force’s Air Command organisation, said the primary aim of Taranis was “to inform decisions of our future”. It provides an insight into “the art of the possible”. A future unmanned combat aerial vehicle could meet the key operating needs of the three services, covering control of the air, attack and intelligence and situational awareness, he suggested.

Surveillance goes green

BAE has also unveiled its “Phantom Eye” hydrogen-powered spy plane, which can fly non-stop for up to four days. Boeing says the aircraft could eventually carry out “persistent intelligence and surveillance”.

BAE’s “Phantom Eye” hydrogen-powered spy plane

The “Phantom Eye” was somewhat overshadowed, however, by Qinetic’s “Zephyr” solar-powered plane, which smashed the endurance record for an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV). Project manager Jon Saltmarsh told BBC News that “Zephyr is basically the first ‘eternal aircraft”.

Zephyr: a solar-powered high-altitude long-endurance (Hale) UAV

And if all that isn’t enough, check-out some of the “microdrones” on show at this “Special Operations Forces Industry Conference” in the States.