Rise of the machines

Daily Mail – February 7, 2011

Like something from a science fiction film, the angular X-47B steadily taxis onto the runway ready for its maiden test flight.

Launching itself into the California sky these pictures show the first of a new breed of unmanned drones, capable of flying themselves undetected to attack targets thousands of miles away.

The new stealth plane marks a radical departure for unmanned aircraft, which up until now required a ground based human pilot to guide them on missions.

Dispensing with the need for human intervention, the X-47B can carry out pre-programmed missions autonomously – with a computer handling everything from take off, landing and even mid-air refuelling.

It is also the first drone said to be capable of launching from and landing on a sea borne aircraft carrier.

Defence firm Northrop Grumman, who were awarded the the $636 million (£400 million) US Navy contract to build the plane in August 2007, are expected to start carrier trials for the drone in 2013 -  with no word yet on when it might make it into the field.

Slightly smaller than the B2 stealth bomber, the X-47B carries laser-guided bombs and can fly faster than 500 miles per hour at 40,000 feet.

Friday’s 29-minute test flight is just the start of over 50 such tests at Edwards Air Force base this year.

The first aircraft will complete its initial testing in late 2011, with a second aircraft due to begin testing shortly thereafter.

Speaking about the test flight, Navy Rear Admiral Bill Shannon said: ‘We are breaking new ground by developing the first unmanned jet aircraft to take off and land aboard a flight deck.’

‘This demonstration program is intended to reduce risk for potential future unmanned systems operating in and around aircraft carriers.’

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