December 12, 2006 11:27 AM PST

U.K. developing unmanned fighter jet

The United Kingdom's Ministry of Defence is spending $242 million (124 million pounds) to develop stealth robot fighter jets, with a prototype expected in the air by the end of the decade.

It has awarded a $242 million contract to BAE Systems to develop unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) technology for "Project Taranis," with BAE leading an industry team that includes Qinetiq, Rolls-Royce and Smiths Aerospace. Taranis is the Celtic god of thunder.

The program will explore how cutting-edge technology can be used to deliver a new front-line UAV capability.

Gallery of stealth jet

The project's resulting Taranis UAV--one of the world's largest, at about the size of a Hawk jet--will integrate stealth technology around an "intelligent, autonomous system." It will also test the potential to carry ground attack weapons.

Lord Paul Drayson, the British defense minister, said the project will test cutting-edge technology for a new generation of front-line equipment.

The project aims to build one flying technology demonstration vehicle, with flight trials provisionally planned for later this decade.

The test jet will integrate off-the-shelf technologies and help increase understanding of the risks and compromises required to successfully integrate key strategic unmanned air vehicle technologies, the Ministry of Defence said.

Steve Ranger of Silicon.com reported from London.

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