Drones that could be used by the military for suicide missions are being developed with the backing of the Ministry of Defence, the Telegraph can reveal.

The development of “drone swarm” units for UK military service, announced by Gavin Williamson last year before he was sacked as Defence Secretary, could now take to the skies within six months.

The MoD hopes to deploy multiple small Uninhabited Air Vehicles (UAV), better known as drones, to overload enemy air defences, conduct cyber attacks and provide live images to control centres that could be located thousands of miles away.

Some aircraft could even be modified to carry weapons or act as ‘suicide drones’ to loiter over a battlefield and attack targets that break cover.

The MoD has invested £4 million in British company Blue Bear to develop a system of networked drones carrying multiple payloads. The company has matched the funding.

Ian Williams-Wynn, MD of Blue Bear, with a Ghost drone

Credit: Heathcliff O'Malley

Michael Toyer, pilot technician at Blue Bear, launches a Cobra fixed wing drone from a catapult system at an airfield in Bedfordshire

Credit:  Heathcliff O'Malley

For around £5 million the company says the MoD could have a fleet of 20 drones linked digitally to a control station, flying in six months.

Ian Williams-Wynn of Blue Bear said: “The Russians used drones to great effect in Crimea and now we’re seeing Azerbaijan buy Turkish drones and fly them in the same way [in the war with Armenia]. 

“Islamic State used model aircraft and were devastatingly effective.”

Defence chiefs hoped drone swarm units would be in service by the end of 2019. That deadline has passed but the RAF’s 216 Squadron has been running trials and development activity.

216 Squadron is working with the RAF’s Rapid Capabilities Office to bring experimental concepts into military service as quickly as possible. 

The squadron has recently conducted trials at RAF Spadeadam in Cumbria, the only electronic warfare trials facility in Europe for aircrew to test their tactics against radars likely to be used in future conflicts.

Small drones capable of taking modular payloads with open systems architecture are much cheaper than bigger UAVs such as Reaper or the RAF’s new Protector aircraft. 

In July 2020 the MoD agreed to buy the first three Protector drones, below, for £65 million. They are due in service in 2024.

An MQ-9B Remotely Piloted Aircraft System which will be known as Protector when it enters RAF service in 2024, arrives at Creech Air Force Base, USA, in 2019.

Credit: WG CDR J D EKLUND/UK MOD CROWN COPYRIGHT 2019

In contrast, small drones are almost invisible to radar and have very low noise signatures.

With a digital backbone they can be controlled either from a base location in UK or, for example, by a special forces team on the ground.

There is resilience and flexibility in having a large fleet of cheaper drones with surveillance, electronic warfare and other capabilities, Mr Williams-Wynn said. 

“The platform is irrelevant. It’s a digital backbone and a nervous system to enable a mix of airborne, land and maritime assets.

“Ultimately, you can put things that go bang on them,” he said.

Blue Bear has two drones, one of which, called Cobra, was designed for Indian special forces to use in the high mountains of Kashmir, although the sale did not go through. 

Cobra was designed to be operated by two people, each carrying no more than 15kg. The UAV was required to launch, via a bungee of about 5m, at an altitude of about 12,000 ft and operate up to about 16,000 ft. 

In contrast, Ghost is a Vertical Take-off and Landing (VTOL) UAV. 

Cobra and Ghost can both carry a payload of about 2kg. This could be a day or thermal camera, a cyber pod, or internal stores.

Ghost, capable of taking off and landing vertically, has a temperature controlled internal payload bay which could carry medical supplies such as blood or plasma direct to a casualty on the battlefield.

A view of Blue Bear's control screen, showing the multiple drones in the air, areas to be avoided (hatched red) and programmed route (red circle). Nov 4, 2020.

Credit:  Heathcliff O'Malley

The internal pod is monitored for vibration and anti-tamper as protein in blood samples and vaccines can be damaged if shaken too violently.

Multiple small drones can each have a different mission. Using one platform to carry all the payloads needs a larger air vehicle that Defence chiefs may not want to risk being shot down.

“As you go up in size you go up in cost. As you go up in cost the asset starts to be more valuable and you don’t want to lose it,” Mr Williams-Wynn said.

Small drones can also be used in public order situations to drop coloured dye, use a loudspeaker or shine eye safe lasers at rioters as a non-lethal means of escalation. 

Ollie Witt, 28, Blue Bear’s CAA-accredited design engineer and test pilot, says in the near future drones will be standard issue to the armed forces in the same way a set of binoculars are today.

“You’ve got to look at it as a system, that’s where the swarming idea is coming in. We’ve got different UAVs doing different jobs, all collaborating to form a complete mission system.”