In 2006 the U.S. Air Force unexpectedly abandoned a joint project with the Navy to design a fighter-style attack drone. For the so-called Joint Unmanned Combat Air System program, Boeing and Northrop Grumman had built competing prototypes: the X-45 and X-47, respectively. In the wake of J-UCAS’s demise, the Navy and Northrop continued developing the carrier-capable X-47 while the X-45 seemingly ended up a derelict on display in the Smithsonian.
In fact, Boeing secretly continued developing the X-45, apparently well aware that the Air Force was fully committed to fighter drones. This year the Air Force unveiled its Lockheed-built MQ-170, a drone with broad similarities to the X-45 and X-47. Also this year, Boeing admitted it had developed the X-45 into the more capable Phantom Ray demonstrator.
The Phantom Ray prototype began low-speed taxi tests earlier this month in St. Louis. Yesterday the bot hitched a ride on the back of the 747 modified to carry the Space Shuttle, bound for NASA’s Dryden center, located at Edwards Air Force Base in California. Phantom Ray should fly for the first time in early 2011, lagging just a few weeks behind the latest version of the X-47, currently slated for a late December first flight.
Between Phantom Ray, X-47 and the similar Avenger drone from General Atomics, 2011 promises big advancements in combat drones. Amid the cost scandals and disappointing test performance of the new F-35 manned fighter, it’s worth remembering that the U.S. remains on the cutting edge of military aerospace with its growing stable of flying, killer robots.