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Boeing aims sky-high with 'Phantom Ray'

The aerospace giant revives its X-45C unmanned aircraft for a new project that it expects to get off the ground in December 2010.

Boeing X-45C
A full-scale model of Boeing's X-45C at the Farnborough International Air Show in 2004. The new Phantom Ray is to be based on this design.

Boeing's experimental X-45 unmanned aircraft could soon be reincarnated as a prototype with a name straight out of the comic books.

The aerospace giant said Friday that it intends to get its "Phantom Ray" technology demonstrator up in the air for its first flight in December 2010. The aircraft, intended as a test bed for advanced air systems, would make a total of 10 flights over a six-month stretch to show off its skills in missions ranging from surveillance to attack to autonomous aerial refueling.

Late in 2009, lab testing will begin for the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), and ground testing will follow in 2010. In putting the design through its paces, Boeing also aims to demonstrate its skills at rapid prototyping.

Boeing's Phantom Works unit won't be starting from scratch--it will be picking up where the company left off with its work on the Pentagon's Joint Unmanned Combat Air System (J-UCAS) program, which ended in 2006. (In this case, "joint" means a collaboration between the Air Force and the Navy--not always a recipe for success--along with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA.) This time around, though, Boeing will be funding the project internally.

The Phantom Ray will be based on the flying wing-shaped X-45C aircraft. Boeing showed off a full-scale model of the X-45C at the Farnborough International Air Show in July 2004.

The C model's smaller predecessor, the X-45A, flew 64 times between 2002 and 2005, including a demonstration flight in which two of the aircraft were handled simultaneously by a single pilot, Boeing said.

The X-45C was designed with a 49-foot wingspan--making it 10 feet wider than it was long. It had been scheduled for first flight in mid-2006. The goal was for it cruise at 0.85 Mach, with a 4,500-pound payload, and to fly at 40,000 feet with a mission radius of 1,300 nautical miles, according to a Boeing statement from 2004. By July 2005, Boeing had been awarded $942 million from DARPA for its work on X-45C systems.

Boeing X-45A
The smaller X-45A (at right) sits beside the F-15E1 advanced technology demonstrator (center) and the J-UCAS T-33 flying test bed (left) at NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center, probably in 2004. NASA, via Boeing