A mock up of BAE Systems' Mantis UAV

BAE Systems is planning to begin test flights of its long-endurance unmanned air vehicle (UAV), dubbed The Mantis, in UK airspace in early 2013.

The drone is expected to undergo a total of 20 test flights covering 750 miles, with each lasting for around three hours, at an altitude of up to 15,000ft above the Irish Sea, as reported by The Daily Mail.

According to BAE, the UAV is currently being evaluated, prior to the start of self-funded taxi tests by the company next year.

BAE military aircraft head, Chris Boardman, told The Times: "It will take a decade to mature for production and operation the next generation of technology. We understand the constraints of the current financial climate but we need to start doing what we need to do."

The tests, if successful, are expected to mark an end for the use of fighter pilots in the UK, and will also bring down the curtain on conventional aircraft, such as the Lockheed Martin-built F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) aircraft.

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According to BAE, the robotic drone is ideal for ”dull, dirty or dangerous” missions, involving Al-Qaeda targets, for example. The drone can also be deployed to pilot commercial aircraft in the future.

Developed as part of a £40m joint project between the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) and the French government, the Mantis is a twin-engine turboprop-powered UAV designed primarily to conduct intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance (ISTAR) missions.

Flying at a maximum altitude of 55,000ft, the UAV offers close-air support for ground missions, even during adverse weather conditions.

The first prototype of Mantis has already completed its successful maiden test flight on 21 October 2009, at Woomera Test Range in South Australia, and is expected to enter operational service in 2016.

Image: A mock up of BAE Systems’ Mantis UAV at the 2008 Farnborough Airshow. Photo: courtesy of Mike Young.