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.

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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