‘Loyal wingman’ fighter drones tested for first time in Britain

“Loyal wingman” fighter drones that will fly alongside British aircraft are a step closer to reality after the technology was successfully tested for the first time.

In the trial, carried out by the Armed Forces and defence company Qinetiq, a crewed plane took remote control of a drone aircraft before sending it on a mission and receiving data back afterwards.

The aircraft also simulated similar actions with a “swarm” of virtual drones. 

Qinetiq’s airborne technology demonstrator (ATD) – dubbed a “flying laboratory” because it is packed with sensors – took off from a Ministry of Defence site in Boscombe Down, Salisbury, while the Banshee Jet 80 drone was separately launched about 500 miles away from a missile range in the Outer Hebrides.

The ATD plane flew to the Hebrides and took control of the Banshee, before giving it orders to carry out a mission.

This involved flying at 350 knots, or about 400 miles per hour, with the aircraft remaining roughly 20 miles apart. 

At the same time, the ATD simulated carrying out the same exercise with a swarm of virtual drones which coordinated with each other.

All the aircraft communicated using a standard Nato data system. The drones were equipped with built-in overrides to ensure they remained at a safe distance at all times.

It is the first demonstration of its kind to be carried out in the UK and comes as the MoD is preparing to deploy so-called uncrewed “loyal wingman” drones alongside conventional forces

The drones used did not carry any weapons, but armed versions could one day be deployed in combat situations.

These would fly in formation with manned aircraft such as Typhoons or F-35 stealth jets, with human pilots able to assign them tasks such as electronic warfare, reconnaissance or bombing runs, reducing the risk to military personnel.

The wingman aircraft could also protect their human controllers in combat situations. 

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