Improvements in Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) technology could eventually lead to a Royal Air Force consisting entirely of pilotless drones.

Speaking at the launch of the UK Ministry of Defence’s (MOD) new Defence Technology Plan (DTP), Minister for Defence Equipment and Support Quentin Davies said that a pilotless combat air force was a possibility although not for the foreseeable future.

“We have been very impressed with the role played by UAV’s in Afghanistan and we are expecting their role to increase greatly over the next 20 or so years, perhaps to the extent where a pilotless air force could be a real possibility,” Davies said.

“For the foreseeable future, however, the MoD will prefer to not put all its eggs in one basket and instead pursue a diverse short term research policy which includes innovation in the field of UAV’s.

“We are committed to using the best option available to us and at present that is a manned system.”

DTP science and technology director Paul Stein said while UAV technology showed huge potential present quality differences between manned and unmanned flight were too big for the technology to stand alone.

“At present we need a man in the loop; we are not prepared to allow a machine to make all the decisions, especially at the point of weapons release,” Stein said.

The DFT will see research needs of defence publicised to encourage as wide a net of suppliers as possible to develop new technologies in battlefield applications.

The MOD set out the development of novel air concepts as one of the DFT’s core capability visions. The vision calls for research and innovation into cost effective, reusable, uninhabited air systems capable of operating within the urban landscape.

To underline to MoD’s commitment to this cause Minister Davies announced funding for a number of contracts including a £1.3m contract to the Stellar Team, winners of last year’s MoD Grand Challenge.

The Stellar Team will consolidate the system capabilities of the Saturn autonomous system of unmanned ground and aerial vehicles.

Swarm Systems was also granted £115,000 to develop its idea of a cooperative swarm of micro-UAVs.

By Daniel Garrun.