In recent years, unmanned planes have proven themselves in war. For example, the Predator, a medium-altitude surveillance plane made by General Atomics, debuted in Bosnia and then served in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Global Hawk, made by Northrop Grumman, has been flying high-altitude reconnaissance missions for years. Meanwhile, Northrop has built and flown another unmanned prototype, called Pegasus, and shown that it could land on an aircraft carrier. But the Pentagon’s massive push for robotic attack planes began in earnest in 2003. That’s when the Pentagon set up the Northrop–Boeing competition and established a seven-year timetable to develop versions suitable for the air force and navy.
Boeing’s version is called X-45; a scaled-down prototype is what dropped the inert bomb last year, and a full-size model is under construction. Northrop’s version is called X-47; it builds on the Pegasus, and the next generation model is still under development. The X-45 is geared more to high-speed air force attacks, and the X-47 to naval reconnaissance and carrier landings. In both cases, the largest prototypes* are supposed to take their first test flights within two years. (Amid the current budgetary uncertainty, DARPA declined to make its researchers available for comment. Comments from DARPA officials in this story come from agency transcripts of presentations the officials made last year.)
It’s not yet clear how many of which version the Pentagon might eventually want to buy. In that important way, this effort differs from the intense, winner-take-all competition to build the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, widely seen as the last manned fighter jet. Boeing lost the F-35 competition to Lockheed Martin in 2001. “It caused [Boeing] to skip a whole generation of fighter aircraft, after being the foremost fighter aircraft supplier,” says Paul Nisbet, an aerospace industry watcher at JSA Research in Newport, RI.
Boeing’s initial pair of scaled-down X-45s have already proved themselves in several initial demonstrations. In 2003, Boeing passed one milestone, showing how the plane’s ground controllers could coordinate flight plans with conventional air-traffic controllers and modify the X-45’s flight plan as needed. Then, in 2004, Boeing’s X-45s demonstrated a few more tricks – deploying inert bombs and, critically, demonstrating that its ground controllers could hand off the wireless yoke to another station nearly 1,400 kilometers away while the plane was in the air. Finally, Boeing showed that a single ground controller could control two X-45s.
And Boeing has another – perhaps more important – ace in the hole. The Pentagon already considers Boeing its “lead systems integrator” for a development project called Future Combat Systems. This megaproject is supposed to yield 18 kinds of sensor-riddled combat vehicles and the advanced communications technologies to link soldiers with vehicles, planes, robots, and each other.
This program is also likely to get scaled back as part of a new round of Pentagon cuts; the new emphasis will be on adding technology to existing vehicles. Still, “both of these programs are talking about putting robots on the battlefield,” says Pike. “Boeing has looked at it and basically said, It’s the future. They are the lead company for robots on the ground battlefield, and they’ve staked out a pretty tall position for aerial robots.” But Boeing and Northrop recognize that the current program isn’t about who can build the best plane. “Before, we were looking at building the best platform,” says William Body, a Boeing manager for business development at the company’s R&D outpost, Phantom Works, based in Saint Louis, MO. “Now we are looking at creating the system-of-systems. We’ll have unmanned planes, we’ll have core technologies. But the endgame here is a network-centric endgame.”