Boeing this week revealed that its autonomous unmanned aircraft, the dashingly named Phantom Ray, had made its first-ever solo flight, just six days earlier. The sleek flying wing, a one-off prototype for now, portends a new class of military drones--aircraft that can pilot themselves in a range of missions from attack to reconnaissance to more mundane tasks such as aerial refueling.
The Phantom Ray is 36 feet long and has a wingspan of 50 feet, and from this angle bears a passing resemblance to a household gray moth. But Boeing has something more menacing in mind: "Autonomous, fighter-sized unmanned aircraft are real," Craig Brown, Phantom Ray program manager for Boeing, said in a statement.
The maiden flight followed high-speed taxi tests in March, and Boeing says more flights will take place in the coming weeks. The flight test program is expected to last six months or so. All that activity is taking place at NASA's Dryden Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base in California.
In its 17-minute flight on April 27, the 18-ton aircraft kept its ambitions in check, hitting a top speed of 178 knots and soaring only as high as 7,500 feet. Eventually, though, the Phantom Ray is expected to have an operating altitude of 40,000 feet and a cruising speed of just over 600 mph, not so far from the speed of sound. (That speed translates to Mach 0.8.)
But the Phantom Ray didn't come out of nowhere. It has its roots in the Pentagon's older, discontinued Joint-Unmanned Combat Air System (J-UCAS) program. That's a trait that it shares--along with its look--with another unmanned prototype, the X-47B, that's being developed by Northrop Grumman.
And it wasn't just any old 747. The Phantom Ray got that airlift from NASA's Shuttle Carrier Aircraft, marking the first time that anything other than a space shuttle has ridden aboard either of the space agency's SCAs.