Video report by Emma Wilkinson.
A Lincolnshire airbase is becoming home to new armed surveillance and strike drones.
A total of £94 million is being invested at RAF Waddington to house 16 of the unmanned aircraft, which means the base will also become an international training centre for when the technology comes into service in 2024.
The UK is the first customer to buy what is being described as the next generation of remotely piloted aircraft, called Protectors, which some say are more advanced than anything that has come before. At the moment the base currently holds a prototype, but eventually all 16 will be in place under the plans.
They will replace the Reaper drones, which have been used in operations in Afghanistan and the Middle East – most recently in the fight against the Islamic State group in Syria and Iraq.
The RAF says the Protectors will provide double their capability, will be easier to take off and land, and they will be able to fly for 40 hours anywhere in the world.
The Ministry of Defence sees it as a big step forward in the development of detect and avoid technology – technology that is designed to replicate the pilot’s ability to see, and help avoid dangers and potential collisions. This would allow the drone to fly in unsegregated civilian airspace – something that some campaigning groups are highly concerned about.
Protesters staged demonstrations outside the base this summer to raise their safety fears about drones being flown over Lincolnshire.
Dr Tim Street from campaigning group Drone Wars UK, said: “These are prototype drones, these are test flights, these are experimental flights, and large military drones do have quite a conspicuous record of crashing.
“The other reasons why we oppose these drone tests are that drones aren’t precision weapons, they do often kill civilians – not just combatants, so why are we spending millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money on these weapons of war?”
But senior officials insist the drones are designed to meet or exceed all aviation certification standards.
ACM Sir Mike Wigston, Chief of the Air Staff, said: “I would give anybody who has any concerns absolute assurance of the level of safety and scrutiny and airworthiness standards that we’ve applied to this aircraft.
“That’s what’s different to this aircraft compared to some of its predecessors, in that this aircraft we’ve applied the same safety standards as if we were putting a human in it – so it’s the same as any aircraft flying in British airspace.”