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Last Updated: Monday, 2 April 2007, 02:27 GMT 03:27 UK
Fighter-controlled jet is tested
By Pallab Ghosh
BBC News science correspondent

Tornado and BAC 1-11 (Qinetiq)
The Tornado and BAC 1-11 aircraft used during the flight trials

The defence technology spin-out company Qinetiq has successfully completed the world's first flight of a plane remotely controlled by a fighter aircraft.

The trial flight, carried out at Boscombe Down airfield in Wiltshire, is part of a programme to develop a system that would enable a single pilot to control a number of unmanned aircraft by remote control.

The US Air Force routinely uses unpiloted aircraft for search and destroy missions. These planes are controlled remotely from a mission operations centre.

The advantage is that these planes can be sent into dangerous areas without risking a pilot's life. The supposed downside is that the controllers are remote from the battle area and so may not be able to respond to rapidly changing situations.

That is why the RAF is testing a converted Tornado whose pilot is able to control four unmanned craft from the cockpit.

Target destroyed

In the system's first big test, the Tornado pilot flew a passenger jet - a BAC-1-11 - and three computer-simulated craft while airborne.

In the exercise, Squadron Leader Andy Blythe successfully used his unmanned aircraft to search out an enemy target and destroy it.

According to Squadron Leader Richard Wells, a member of the RAF's Future Combat Air Capability team: "Militarily speaking, not only does it allow the pilot to remain in a safe area - but it allows him to operate his team of unmanned aircraft and allow him to carry out the elements of the mission he wants to undertake."

The main risk is to the pilot being overwhelmed
Rohit Jaggi,
aviation correspondent
But some independent commentators, such as Rohit Jaggi, aviation columnist for the Financial Times, believe that in the heat of battle pilots would be swamped with information and unable to engage in combat and control their robot planes.

"The main risk is to the pilot being overwhelmed," he said. "They won't be able to deal with threats to the unmanned aircraft - so you may as well control them from sunny Wiltshire."

Mr Jaggi believes it could be easier to control unmanned aircraft from the ground - where there is less stress and more battlefield information.

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