Military bullish on robot planes, despite crashes

Sunday, July 14, 2002

EDWARDS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- The use of robot planes by the U.S. military in the war on terrorism has helped spark interest in the cutting-edge technology, in spite of the crashes that continue to plague pilotless aircraft.

Last week, officials showed off a futuristic robot plane designed to do a better job of surviving the rigors of combat.

Since the fall, at least eight robot planes have crashed in and around Afghanistan, Iraq and the Philippines. The latest crash, of a Global Hawk reconnaissance plane, came Wednesday in Pakistan.

But military officials are still bullish on unmanned air vehicles, or UAVs. Planes like Northrop Grumman's Global Hawk and the General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Predator have had high-profile roles.

"I doubt you could have found 12 congressmen prior to Sept. 11 who could have told you what a Predator was, much less who made it," said Larry Dickerson, senior unmanned air vehicle analyst for Forecast International/ DMS in Newtown, Conn.

Dickerson predicts the global market for military drones could be worth $7.5 billion over the next decade.

The Defense Advanced Research Project Agency, which develops future technologies for use by the Pentagon, has at least a half-dozen other UAVs and UCAVs -- the "C" stands for combat -- under development. Among them are jet- and rotor-driven craft, some no larger than a cake pan.

On Thursday, one of the largest of the planes, the X-45, was displayed.

Developed by DARPA, the Air Force and The Boeing Co. for $256 million, the sleek, tailless jet is the first unpiloted plane to be developed specifically to carry weapons into combat. Beginning in Vietnam, other drones, including the Predator now flying in Afghanistan, have been modified to carry missiles.

"This is designed as a tactical aircraft. Global Hawk and Predator were not," said Col. Michael Leahy Jr., manager of DARPA's UCAV program.

Boeing has built two X-45s so far, one trimmed in blue, the other in red. Only the blue plane has flown, on May 22 and June 13 above the Mojave Desert. The second will begin flight tests this fall.

The two Y-shaped planes both sport a gaping air intake instead of a canopy. The planes have a 34-foot wingspan and are just 4 feet thick, giving them a slim, stealthy profile.

Military officials said the slightly larger production model of the plane will be able to carry more than 3,000 pounds of bombs to drop on enemy radar and missile batteries, perhaps by 2010.

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