7 Unmanned Military Aircraft of the Near Future

7 Unmanned Military Aircraft of the Near Future

Yohani Kamarudin
Yohani Kamarudin
Scribol Staff
Technology, June 27, 2013

X-47B UCAS in flight
Image: Courtesy of Northrop Grumman
X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System on cruise control

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) designed for combat situations are not a new invention. There have been remotely operated military vehicles since as far back as World War I, when a number of pilotless aircraft were developed. In the past 15 years, however, technical advances have meant that these controversial vehicles have come to play a more prominent part in modern warfare.

Drones have been used extensively by the US Military in its campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan for communications, search and rescue, destroying enemy air defenses, and in strike missions. They have proven themselves to be effective weapons and are being developed as we speak in several different forms. We’ve previously looked at future aircraft on Tech Graffiti; now here’s a list of seven drones that may be soaring through the skies in the near future.

7. Northrop Grumman X-47B

X-47B UCAS seen from above
Image: Courtesy of Northrop Grumman
The X-47B seen from above

Writing about the first carrier-based launch of the X-47B in May 2013, US Navy Rear Admiral Mat Winter said, “This historic event challenges the paradigm of manned carrier landings that were first conducted more than 90 years ago.” The X-47B is a prototype unmanned combat system (UCAS) intended for Navy carriers. Defense technology company Northrop Grumman developed the X-47B, which can be remotely controlled by ground operators. The vehicle is one of four competitors in the US Navy’s Unmanned Carrier-Launched Surveillance and Strike System (UCLASS). Two other competitors, the Sea Ghost and the Phantom Ray, appear later on this list.

X-47B taking off
Image: Courtesy of Northrop Grumman
From this angle, the X-47B looks a little like a space shuttle.

The X-47B is currently undergoing flight-testing. And although it is not going to be used for operations, the drones developed from it are expected to take part in reconnaissance missions and will be fitted with two weapons bays to take ammunition. When designing the aircraft, developers had to take into account a saltwater environment and also consider the high electromagnetic interference present on aircraft carriers. The Navy hopes to launch its first operational UCLASS in 2019. By January 2012, the X-47B program had cost an estimated $813 million.

6. Northrop Grumman MQ-4C Triton

The Triton above the clouds
Image: Courtesy of Northrop Grumman
The MQ-4C

The MQ-4C Triton is an unmanned vehicle intended for the US Navy, but although it may be sent into battle zones, it is actually an unarmed surveillance craft. When it is fully operational, the Triton is expected to run maritime surveillance, analyze battle damage and relay communications.

Triton on its first flight
Image: Courtesy of Northrop Grumman
The Triton completes its first flight in May 2013.

The Triton made its first test flight on May 22, 2013. When it is completed, the vehicle will be able to cover large distances, with a maximum speed of 357 mph (575 km/h) and an endurance of up to 28 hours. The Triton is powered by a Rolls-Royce AE 3007 turbofan and is manned remotely by a four-person ground crew. Currently, the US Navy is the only military force operating the Triton, but the Australian and Indian forces have shown interest in it, too.

5. Boeing Phantom Ray

Boeing Phantom Ray
Image: Boeing Photo
The Boeing Phantom Ray on its first flight, April 2011

Up until May 2009, only a handful of Boeing engineers and executives knew anything of this next vehicle’s existence. With a 50-foot (15-meter) wingspan, the Phantom Ray is roughly the same size as a regular fighter jet, and Boeing hopes the Phantom Ray will be the first in a new line of prototype aircraft.

Boeing Phantom Ray on first flight
Image: Boeing Photo
The Boeing Phantom Ray in flight

Boeing financed the development of the Phantom Ray themselves, basing it on the X-45C concept model they created for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). The Phantom Ray has capabilities for surveillance, electronic attack, suppressing enemy air defenses, aerial refueling, and other missions. It has a top speed of Mach 0.85 and a range of 1,500 miles (2,414 km).

4. Northrop Grumman MQ-8C Fire-X

MQ-8C Fire Scout
Image: Courtesy of Northrop Grumman
The MQ-8C Fire-X

In January 2006, an RQ-8A Fire Scout became the first UAV helicopter to land autonomously on a moving ship – which was traveling at up to 17 mph (27 km/h). Its successor, the MQ-8B Fire Scout, was developed by Northrop Grumman for the US Armed Forces and is used for reconnaissance and support. In 2012, Northrop Grumman was awarded a $262.3 million Navy contract to further improve the craft – and the MQ-8C Fire-X is currently in development.

MQ-8C Fire Scout
Image: Courtesy of Northrop Grumman
The MQ-8C with a battleship

The vehicle will be used for similar duties to those of the MQ-8B, but it packs more of a punch: it can carry a greater payload and has double the endurance capabilities, as well as much-improved flight range. The MQ-8C can be equipped with AGM-175 Griffin missiles, APKWSII guided rockets and AGM-114 Hellfire missiles. This craft is currently undergoing development and testing, and it is hoped that it will be ready for action in 2014.

3. Lockheed Martin Sea Ghost

UCLASS on the deck
Image: Lockheed Martin Aeronautics
The Sea Ghost on deck

Aerospace and defense company Lockheed Martin’s UCLASS drone is also known as the “Sea Ghost,” and while it might look rather like a stealth bomber, it is in fact a UAV capable of surveillance and reconnaissance as well as strike missions. The vehicle is expected to be able to carry a brace of 1,000-pound class weapons. It even has enough space to be armed with payloads for electronic attacks.

Image: Lockheed Martin Aeronautics
The Lockheed Martin Sea Ghost

A single ground-based operator will be capable of controlling a number of the drones at one time. According to Lockheed Martin’s website, the “UCLASS will balance endurance, early operational capability, and inherent growth that will enable operations in any environment or threat scenario.” It is anticipated to be in limited operational use by 2018.

2. Boeing Phantom Eye

Image: Boeing Photo
Boeing Phantom Eye on its first flight

The Phantom Eye is well named for its purpose – to be the US military’s eye in the sky in battle zones, particularly in Afghanistan. It is a high altitude long endurance (HALE) vehicle that can spend over four days in continuous flight. Notwithstanding the Phantom Eye’s primary purpose as a spy plane, Boeing also thinks that it could play a key communications relay role for the US Navy.

Image: Boeing Photo
Boeing Phantom Eye

This high-altitude vehicle can reach 65,000 feet and is powered by liquid hydrogen, the fuel for its internal combustion engines. This fuel is a clean source of energy, as the only byproduct is water. The vehicle will carry sensor packages for surveillance, communication and tracking. Interestingly, in June 2013 the US Missile Defense Agency also awarded a $6.8 million contract to Boeing to place an unnamed payload onto the demonstration model of the Phantom Eye.

1. Boeing Insitu RQ-21 Integrator

Image: US Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Sabrina Fine
The RQ-21 Integrator being recovered

Although relatively small at 16 feet (five meters) across, the Insitu RQ-21 is a powerful unmanned monoplane, developed by Boeing for the US Navy. One of the RQ-21’s unique features is that it doesn’t need a runway; it is shot into the sky using a pneumatic launcher and is recovered by a system called Skyhook. When it is ready, the RQ-21 will supplement another currently operational UAV, the Scan Eagle.

Boeing Insitu RQ-21
Image: Official US Navy Imagery
The RQ-21 on deck

The Insitu RQ-21 is a twin-boomed single-engine craft. Remote control is achieved through a newly developed process that allows for unification between different UAV systems. This craft has also been designed to withstand high-temperature surroundings. The RQ-21 comes equipped with day and night video cameras, a laser rangefinder, and an automatic identification system (AIS) receiver. Currently, these UAVs are in low-rate initial production, having passed all the required tests.

Bonus Entry: Boeing Long-Range Strike-B Heavy Bomber Program

Boeing Strike Bomber soars
Image: Boeing Photo
Boeing Long-Range Strike-B Bomber

A lot of the US Air Force’s Long-Range Strike-B program is being kept under wraps while it is still in development. What is known is that the next-generation bomber will be a high-tech stealth craft that is set to replace some of the current B-2 and B-52 planes. One of its most important attributes will be its ability to strike targets – such as enemy missile launch sites – from a distance and hopefully remain undetected. Although they will operate as manned planes, they may also be converted into UAVs – which is why they make this list (just).

Image: Boeing Photo
Boeing Strike-B Bomber seen from above

The craft will have the capacity to deliver nuclear strikes, possibly in an unmanned configuration. It will also be equipped for surveillance, electronic attack and communications. The current budget for these future bombers is $550 million each, and it is hoped that a fleet of around 100 will be ready in the 2020s.

MQ-8C Fire Scout
Image: Courtesy of Northrop Grumman
Northrop Grumman’s Fire-X

It is easy to see the appeal of these high-tech pieces of machinery: they are able to conduct stealthy intelligence missions, and the fact of their unmanned flight reduces the need for human troops to enter high-risk situations. Yet their use is also controversial, and some question the ethics of using robotized weapons on the enemy. As these weapons can reach virtually anybody, anywhere, with little risk to the operator, people fear that human life will lose its value. Do the positives outweigh the negatives? We’ll leave it to you to make up your own mind.

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23