May 9, 2009 Boeing plans to have a new unmanned platform based on the X-45C in the air by December 2010. Dubbed Phantom Ray, the internally funded venture will build on the knowledge gained in the shelved X-45 project, which saw the X-45A unmanned aircraft complete 64 flights between 2002 and 2005, achieving a number of milestones including the first precision weapons demonstration by an unmanned combat system and the first autonomous multivehicle flight under the control of a single pilot. Phantom Ray will be based on the larger, fighter-sized, X-45C which appeared at airshows as a full-scale mock-up during 2004.

Even though it has a head-start, the timing goals of the rapid-prototyping project are ambitious - lab testing is slated for later this year with 10 flights planned for the six month period after it's first flight in December 2010.

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The Phantom Ray test bed aims to demonstrate a broad range of capabilities from surveillance and reconnaissance to electronic attack and hunter/killer roles. Autonomous aerial refueling, which was one of the technologies being developed for the X-45C, will also be incorporated in the Phantom Ray.

"What is particularly exciting about Phantom Ray is that we will incorporate the latest technologies into the superb X-45C airframe design," said Dave Koopersmith, vice president of Boeing Advanced Military Aircraft, a division of Phantom Works. "As we gradually expand the vehicle's flight envelope, potential users will have access to a full range of unique capabilities that only this type of autonomous platform can provide."

DARPA and the U.S. Air Force discontinued the U.S. Navy Joint-Unmanned Combat Air System (J-UCAS) program for which the X-45C was originally developed in 2006. This was reborn into a Navy-only program named UCAS-D and Boeing submitted another X-45 variant (the X-45N), but the contract went to Northrop Grumman's X-47 Pegasus.

Noel McKeegan

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