A prototype of England’s Taranis Unmanned Combat Aircraft System (UCAS) that we first covered back in 2006 has been unveiled for the first time by the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD). Three and a half years in the making and the product of more than a million man-hours the concept demonstrator is designed to test the possibility of developing the first ever autonomous stealthy UCAV that would ultimately be capable of precisely striking targets at long range, even on another continent.

Named after the Celtic god of thunder, Taranis will be one of the world’s largest UAVs at about the size of a BAE Systems Hawk Jet. The aircraft will provide the UK MoD with experimental evidence on the potential capabilities of this class of UAV and help inform decisions on the future mix of manned and unmanned fast jet aircraft.

The demonstrator will have two internal weapons bays and, with the inclusion of “full autonomy,” the intention is for the craft to “think for itself” for a large part of any mission. However, BAE Systems says that should such systems enter into service, they will at all times be under the control of highly trained military crews on the ground who will also be able to remotely pilot the aircraft.

The Taranis project is an informal partnership of the UK MoD and industry partners including Rolls Royce, QinetiQ, GE Aviation and BAE Systems which is responsible for the project’s overall design leadership as well as providing stealth technology, flight testing and control equipment.

Speaking at the unveiling ceremony this week at BAE Systems in Warton, Lancashire, Minister for International Security Strategy Gerald Howarth said: “Taranis is a truly trailblazing project. The first of its kind in the UK, it reflects the best of our nation’s advanced design and technology skills and is a leading programme on the global stage.”

Initial ground-based testing commenced this year with the craft’s first flight expected to take place in 2011 on successful conclusion of the ground-based testing. However, on January 9, 2009 the MoD was forced to deny the Taranis had been flying near the site of a smashed wind turbine in Lincolnshire after locals claimed to have seen a UFO. Conspiracy theorists feel free to draw your own conclusions.