Off the Leash: new report explores UK development of technology for armed autonomous drones

A Taranis aircraft in flight.

A new report reveals that the British Ministry of Defence (MoD) is actively funding research into technology supporting the development of armed autonomous drones. The British military has asserted that it “does not possess fully autonomous weapons and has no intention of developing them”, but the reports author insisted that "the development of a truly autonomous lethal drone in the foreseeable future is now a real possibility."

The study - called Off the Leash: The Development of Autonomous Military Drones in the UK and published by the research organisation Drone Wars UK - identifies the key technologies influencing the development of future armed drones and looks at current initiatives which are under way in the UK to marry developments in autonomy – the ability of a machine to operate with limited, or even no, human control – with military drone technology. The report also maps out the different agencies, laboratories, and contractors researching drones and autonomous weapon technology for the Ministry of Defence. Companies covered in the report include:

  • BAE Systems - involved in a number of programmes to "pioneer the development of various aspects of autonomous flight and surveillance technology". Autonomous weapons under development by BAE Systems include Taranis, a £185m experimental supersonic stealth aircraft capable of holding "an adversary at continuous risk of attack".
  • Thales Group - particularly it's development of the Watchkeeper drone, which has some autonomous functions built in, and the "Spy Arrow", a mini-drone which can be operated in a fully autonomous mode.
  • QinetiQ - a company that runs a number of MoD research sites, including the Wales Unmanned Aircraft Systems Environment and the Snowdonia Aerospace Centre. These sites have been used for a range of different testing environments, and have been used by BAE Systems and Thales. The company also manages the Unmanned Air Systems Capability Development Centre, which "coordinates the input of support and expertise from relevant MoD agencies, industry, and academia on emerging matters relating to military drones."


The report also outlines some of the university departments accepting money from the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL), a branch of the MoD responsible for "delivering MoD's Science and Technology Programme using industrial, academic and Government resources" and BAE Systems. Through freedom of information requests, the report found eight universities working on a variety of research programmes related to autonomous systems and drones in the UK. Some universities have developed specialist testing facilities. Imperial College has built a "multi terrain aerial robotics arena", and Cranfield University has a loboratory dedicated to autonomous vehicles.

The full report is available at the Drone Wars UK website here:

Programmes & Projects

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