It was barely two months ago that Northrop Grumman’s X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System (UCAS) made its first autonomous flight. On April 27, Boeing’s Phantom Ray followed suit on its first flight, maneuvering at 7,500 feet at speeds of over 175 knots. The test flight, which lasted just under 20 minutes, was followed by a perfect autonomous landing.
Obviously, this is just the first little taste of what the Phantom Ray is capable of. Its operational top speed is about 0.85 Mach, with a range of nearly 2,500 km. Further testing will explore the capabilites of the UCAS for “supporting missions that may include intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance; suppression of enemy air defenses; electronic attack; hunter/killer; and autonomous aerial refueling.”
It’s worth mentioning that unlike the Northrop Grumman X-47B, the Phantom Ray is entirely Boeing’s project. Northrop Grumman won DARPA’s UCAS program, and the X-47B is being developed specifically for the US Navy. Even though Boeing’s X-45 didn’t get selected, Boeing decided not to just let the X-45 die off, and so they adapted it into the Phantom Ray instead. Just what exactly is going to happen to the program is anyone’s guess; the possibilities range from keeping it as a testbed to turning it into a production prototype that’s ready for deployment. And you know what that would mean... Sometime, somewhere, someone is going to get an X-47B and a Phantom Ray in the same piece of sky and just let them go at it, Top Gun style.