Robotic Bombers; June 2001; Scientific American Magazine; by Steven Ashley; 1 Page(s)
Later this summer, or perhaps in early autumn, a small pilotless plane will rise into the clear air over southern California's desert salt flats on its maiden flight. From all appearances, the new aircraft will look similar to the many other unmanned vehicles that have soared into the sky on solo spy missions and scientific surveys in recent years. This robotic airplane, however, will differ significantly from its predecessors. Rather than toting surveillance cameras and radars, it will carry "smart" bombs and missiles, should the system eventually be deployed in the field. Moreover, this new unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV) is designed to fly for the most part autonomously, in squadrons that will sweep over heavily defended battle zones in waves making coordinated ground strikes.
The first of a new generation of pilotless attack aircraft, the X-45A is one of a pair built by Boeing Phantom Works in St. Louis as part of a $131-million program sponsored by the U.S. Air Force and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Though strictly a technology demonstrator, the Boeing aircraft is designed to meet real requirements for hazardous combat missions in which airplanes fly directly into the teeth of surface-to-air missile batteries. If the concept proves itself in flight tests planned for the next two years, production UCAVs could be in the air by around 2010.