Note: This article discusses material that was once considered canon but whose canonicity is now questionable due to contradiction by new sources.
An Ether Drive is a Tau spacecraft drive that allows for faster-than-light travel through the boundary between realspace and the Warp. Unlike an Imperial Warp-Drive, which allows a starship to fully enter and navigate through the Warp to achieve apparent superluminal speeds and reduced travel times in realspace, the Tau Ether Drive only allows a starship to make a brief "dive" into Warpspace. While a Tau starship outfitted with an Ether Drive can still achieve apparent superluminal velocities from the perspective of realspace, interstellar travel using this technology is far slower than conventional Warp travel. Despite the Tau’s lack of psykers, and their lack of understanding of the true nature of the Empyrean, the Earth Caste have nevertheless developed an effective drive system that is sufficient to suit the needs of the rapidly expanding Tau Empire.
On the innermost of the world of T'au's seven moons, a routine geological survey discovered the remains of an alien vessel. The significance of the find did not disrupt Tau society as much as might have been expected. Tau theorists had long reasoned that other intelligent life forms existed in the universe and the verification helped confirm the belief that there was a greater destiny awaiting them. No Tau commented on the sheer good fortune of finding the technology that they so desperately needed on their doorstep just when they needed it.
The Tau were able to duplicate the Warp-Drive of the alien ship but the initial test flights were disastrous. Achieving transition to the Warp required more than technology, it required psychically attuned minds; and the Tau race boasted no psykers. Without them to guide the transition, no amount of power could breach the dimensional barriers. The best the Tau could do was make a partial transition, forcing themselves into the void that separated the Warp and realspace before they were hurled out again like a ball held under water then released.
Data gathered at great cost during the test flights was studied closely. Water Caste scientists made the observation that the boundary between realspace and Warpspace was not a neat line. It was closer to being a turbulent ocean fomented by the tempestuous Warp tides below. By carefully angling their descent toward the Warp and extending the field generated by the gravitic drive into a wing, shaped to hold the vessel down in the Empyrean tides, a Tau vessel could extend the duration of the dive considerably. The speeds achieved in the ascent back to realspace were staggering and this coupled with the effect of the Warp on time and space ensured that the real distance covered by the dive was immense. Early tests lost several Drone ships because they inadvertently passed far beyond the sensor range of their recovery vessels.
The details were soon resolved. There was still a major constraint on this so-called Ether Drive, for only the most powerful (and bulky) drives could sustain the gravitic wing throughout the dive and the power drain meant that considerable recharge time was needed between dives. Also, in comparison to a starship that fully entered and navigated through the Warp using a conventional Warp-Drive, the pace of superluminal travel was very slow. In comparison to the typical superluminal speeds achieved by Imperial voidships outfitted with Warp-Drives, the Tau Ether Drive was slower by a factor of five. The speed was consistent though, and did not expose the Tau to the myriad perils of the Warp, enabling the Tau race to expand beyond their home star system for the first time.
- Battlefleet Gothic Armada, pg. 96