An unmanned British stealth drone that can fly faster than the speed of sound and go undetected by radar will soon have its first test flight in Australia.
The £125 million ($190 million) Taranis, named after the Celtic god of thunder, can attack targets across continents, automatically dodge missiles and other efforts to bring it down and independently identify targets. It can refuel in mid-air and carry weapons including laser guided bombs and missiles.
Designed to avoid having to put human lives at risk on long and dangerous missions, the drone will be flown for the first time in a series of tests over the Australian outback early this year, Britain's Telegraph reported.
The maker of the drone, BAE Systems, conducts much of its unmanned aircraft work and research in Australia, with its engineering hub based in Melbourne. BAE did not respond to a request for comment but told the Telegraph that Taranis will "have a major impact on the future of the UK military".
With a length of 12.5 metres and a wingspan of 10 metres, Taranis is purportedly even more advanced than current US drones such as the Reaper and Predator.
Drones have become a mainstay of warfare but are shrouded in secrecy. The US, ramping up its drone program under President Barack Obama, has used them against "kill list" targets in place such as Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.
About 95 per cent of targeted killings since the September 11 terrorist attacks have been conducted by drones, ProPublica reported. The US drone war has been carried out remotely from the US as well as through secret bases around the world, including from Australia.
Andrew Davies, senior analyst of defence capability at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, said the Australian Army and the Royal Australian Air Force have used surveillance drones but not armed ones.
He said he believed that for Britain's Taranis tests Australia appealed because it contains a lot of wide open spaces with next to no electromagnetic signals. He believed the tests would take place around Woomera in South Australia.
The Department of Defence in Canberra said a number of countries including Britain use Australia for tests of this type due to larger range areas with less congested airspace.
"For security reasons, details of the location and timing of specific tests or trials of this type are classified and not disclosed prior to the trials," a Defence spokesman said.
During the test flight Taranis will reportedly fly a simulated mission where it must seek out potential targets and avoid threats such as ground to air missiles. Once it identifies a target, it will only attack after given the all clear by mission command.
But Davies believes it is only a matter of time before drones are making decisions for themselves.
"I think there's certainly some things to be concerned about; if you look at what's called Moore's Law, which is something in the world of computers that says that processing power essentially doubles every 18 months or two years, [and] it's inevitable that there will be machines sooner rather than later that are able to evaluate the environment around them and make their own decisions," he said.
"When you look at that in its application to warfare that opens the possibilities of systems that you just let go and they make their own targeting decisions. I think there are both ethical and practical problems with that."
He said drones such as Taranis were designed from the start as a "weapons delivery platform" but drones currently in use "are really surveillance drones that have had weapons bolted on to them".
It is estimated about 3000 people have been killed in US drone strikes, including hundreds of civilians which has led to significant controversy. Australian academics have previously told Fairfax Media that the expanding drone program poses human rights and privacy risks and there is a very real danger they could fall into the hands of those aiming to hurt the West.
Davies said the appeal of drone technology for the military was that unlike manned aircraft they "have the ability to hang around almost indefinitely".
"Any form of air strike runs the risk of civilian casualties on the ground and it doesn't matter whether it's manned or unmanned," he said.
"Like most aspects of warfare there are upsides and downsides to it ... it has been very effective in targeting particularly the leadership of Al Qaeda but it has a downside in terms of both the incidental killing of civilians and the anger it creates in local communities."
In parallel with the military applications, civilian use of drones has been ramping up in Australia in areas such as real estate, mining, environmental surveying and emergency services. In October last year hobbyists used a drone to find a "missing" bushwalker with no human intervention as part of a CSIRO competition.
Boeing subsidiary Insitu Pacific, based in Australia, has trialled its Scan Eagle drones for use in bushfire monitoring and for tracking marine mammals around oil and gas fields in Australia, managing director Andrew Duggan told Fairfax Media.
"We're really trying to turn the focus of these systems on to replacing or supplementing manned aircraft in missions where pilots and air crew might be at risk," he said.
Duggan said he had also had interest from potential clients who want to use drones for shark spotting and for pollution monitoring on the Great Barrier Reef.