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First flight of the Phantom Ray (photos)

Boeing's autonomous unmanned aircraft gets off the ground for a 17-minute solo flight over Edwards Air Force Base in California.

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jonskillings2022
Jon Skillings
A born browser of dictionaries and a lifelong New Englander, Jon Skillings is an editorial director at CNET. He honed his language skills as a US Army linguist (Polish and German) before diving into editing for tech publications -- including at PC Week and the IDG News Service -- back when the web was just getting under way, and even a little before. For CNET, he's written on topics from GPS to 5G, James Bond, lasers, brass instruments and music streaming services.
Jon Skillings
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Phantom Ray on the flight line

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.
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Flying wing

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.
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Dawn patrol

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.
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Phantom Ray takes flight

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.)
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Phantom Ray in flight

Boeing says that it's funding Phantom Ray research out of its own pocket. It's also using the work to tout its skills at rapid prototyping.
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Landing strip

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.
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Phantom Ray atop 747

In December, the Phantom Ray went airborne, but not under its own power. It hitched a ride to California from St. Louis, where it was being worked on by Boeing's Phantom Works operation.
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Shuttle Carrier Aircraft

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.

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