JULY 16th sees the opening of the Farnborough air show. Plane spotters attending the show, which by entente cordiale alternates annually with that in Paris, will be hoping for an appearance by one of the F-35 Lightning fighters delivered recently to Britain’s air force and navy. The F-35 represents the best that the present has to offer in aerial military technology. The minds of visitors from the aerospace industry and the armed forces, though, will mostly be on the future—and in particular what sort of aircraft will follow the F-35. All around the show will be drones of almost every shape and size. This raises the question: will future combat aircraft need pilots?

At least part of the answer can be found 400km north of Farnborough, near Preston, Lancashire. Warton Aerodrome is the site of Britain’s nearest equivalent to Lockheed Martin’s celebrated Skunk Works—a research and development facility run by BAE Systems, the country’s largest aerospace and defence contractor. Inside a high-security building called 31 Hanger sits Taranis, an aircraft named after the Celtic god of thunder.

Taranis looks like something out of “Star Wars”. It is about the size of a small jet fighter, but is shaped like a flying wing. It is an unmanned, stealthy combat drone. Like most military drones it can be operated, via a secure data link, by a pilot sitting in a control centre on the ground. Taranis, however, can also be let off its digital leash and allowed to think for itself using artificially intelligent automated systems. Left to its own devices, Taranis can take off, find its way to a combat zone, select a target, attack said target with missiles and then find its way home and land. A ground pilot would be needed only to keep an eye on events and take control if there was a problem.

Thunder follows Lightning

Removing the pilot, together with the systems required for a human being to fly a fighter aircraft and remain alive during the gut-wrenching manoeuvres this involves, has many advantages—not least of them, cost. A manned version of Taranis, were one to be built, would be twice the size and twice the price. The current prototype is thought to have set BAE back by around £185m ($244m). That is cheap for what is a one-off experimental prototype. The F-35, a ten-country effort led by Lockheed Martin, is reckoned to be the most expensive military weapons system in history. Some $50bn was spent developing the aircraft, which cost around $100m each.

At present, Taranis is not scheduled for production. It was built to explore what such a drone is capable of achieving. After a series of successful test flights in Australia (pictured above), BAE’s engineers are ready to apply the lessons they have learned to their designs of combat aircraft that might take to the sky a decade or so hence.

The good news for pilots is that even in drone-heavy air forces they will still have a job—though not necessarily in the air. Many will be employed supervising drones from the ground. Others, though, will indeed remain flying for, as Michael Christie, BAE’s head of air strategy, observes, in the future pilotless and piloted fighter aircraft will operate together.

A human being who can make decisions will always be needed somewhere in the system, Mr Christie reckons. And in some cases it would be best if that person was in the aerial thick of things. Just as fighter pilots now fly with wingmen alongside them, a single pilot could fly with a number of combat drones, similar to Taranis, as his “wingbots”. The drones would operate autonomously but respond to a pilot’s command. They might be used to reconnoitre an area or attack it, permitting the manned aircraft to hold back.

The idea of people flying in formation with drones is being explored in several other countries, too. Last year Lockheed Martin’s research engineers converted an F-16 fighter into an unmanned drone, complete with various anti-collision systems, and flew it alongside a manned fighter to carry out ground attacks on a test range. Japan is also looking at using drone squadrons to accompany piloted aircraft. Japanese officials say the drones could undertake defensive twists and turns at g-forces so high that a human being could not withstand them, and thus be used to divert incoming missiles away from a manned fighter. China is also developing a combat drone known as Dark Sword, which might similarly be used in conjunction with manned fighter jets.

This vision of a team of full-sized drones with a single human mind in charge gives the term “squadron leader” a whole new meaning. It also requires new technology, some of which is prefigured in the F-35. This aircraft is a massive information system, in which the amount of data generated by its sensors is beyond anything a human being could take in, so the aircraft’s computers dish up only what a pilot needs to know, when he needs to know it. Information relevant to the flight at any particular time is presented on touchscreens in the cockpit and as images projected within the pilot’s helmet. His vision is improved further by cameras embedded in the aircraft’s skin, allowing him to “see” through its structure. That way he can spot anything which might otherwise be obscured—even things directly below.

This information feed also extends to other manned aircraft, to reconnaissance drones and to ground forces. Instead of attacking a heavily defended position himself, an F-35 pilot could, for example, summon a missile strike from a ship. Eventually, this information feed will extend to his receiving data from, and issuing orders to, accompanying combat drones.

All these extra data mean military aviators of the future are likely to be even more reliant than today’s are on their helmets. BAE has an experimental system in which almost all the physical instruments and controls in a cockpit have been replaced by virtual ones projected into the pilot’s helmet. The pilot can reach out to touch or operate these controls as if they were in physical form, with sensors recognising from his movements what he is trying to do. This could mean that when an aircraft’s flight systems need updating, it is the pilot’s helmet rather than the aircraft itself that is revised.

Dropping the pilot

Such possibilities raise the question of just how far automated operations could spread to civil aviation. Digital fly-by-wire systems, in which computers make the high-speed decisions needed to execute manoeuvres signalled by movements of a pilot’s joystick, have already migrated from military jets to the cockpits of civilian airliners. America, Russia and other countries are now exploring the possibility of using unmanned military planes to carry cargo and as refuelling tankers. Civilian freighters could be automated too. Airline bosses tend to think, however, that passengers would not be comfortable boarding a plane that has no pilots.

Yet there is a halfway house for airliners. The radio operator, navigator and flight engineer have already been made redundant by technological advances. Drone technology could see the co-pilot relieved of duty, too. Airbus, for one, is known to be looking at single-pilot operation in some circumstances. Such a system would allow a ground-based pilot to take control of an aircraft in the event of a problem. A team of seasoned pilots based in a control centre would be able to monitor a fleet of jets. Whether that would be enough to reassure the nervous traveller, even if it results in lower fares, remains to be seen.