ST. LOUIS — Boeing's newest spy drone, the Phantom Ray, got its first taste of the air Monday while hitching a ride on a 747 designed to ferry the space shuttle. It was a first for the drone, which is a test bed for advanced UAV technologies, but it was also a big day for NASA, which proved it can find new uses for space shuttle technologies after the shuttles retire.
The shuttle carrier aircraft, dubbed SCAs, had never hauled anything other than the shuttle orbiters. Boeing approached NASA last December and asked to borrow one of the planes, and NASA managers — who have denied previous requests — decided to do it, according to Jill Brigham, a NASA project manager based at Johnson Space Center.
"Initially, NASA management was not going to allow such a unique asset to be used. But with the shuttle program ending, they were more willing to use the aircraft for other tasks," she said. "This proves that we can do this, we can use the SCA post-shuttle program."
The 747 arrived at Boeing's St. Louis facilities Tuesday, Dec. 7. Two days later, workers used a crane to pluck the tiny Phantom Ray drone off a flatbed trailer and swing it up onto the 747. A crane on the plane's other side carefully set it down onto a special adaptor designed by Boeing structural engineer Randy DeVore. The process took about 12 hours in 15-mph winds, DeVore said.
Phantom Ray is a flying delta wing descended from Boeing Phantom Works's X-45C demonstrator aircraft, and like its predecessor, it will be used to demonstrate the newest technologies available for autonomous aircraft. Just 36 feet long with a 50-foot wingspan, it will be able to carry a light payload around 4,000 pounds. It will cruise at 40,000 feet, reaching speeds of 614 mph — making it one of the fastest drones on record. Its unusual shape also allows it to evade radar.
It could be used for surveillance and reconnaissance, offensive capabilities like electronic jamming and seek-and-destroy missions, and even autonomous aerial refueling — those uses will be up to the military, according to project manager Craig Brown.
Boeing workers came up with the name Phantom Ray in a contest. It looks like a manta ray, and the name Phantom is in honor of Phantom Works, Brown said.
Beginning in January, Boeing will test the aircraft's capabilities at Edwards Air Force Base in California, but first it has to ship it there. The Federal Aviation Administration doesn't allow unmanned aircraft in civilian airspace, so flying it there wasn't an option. Boeing considered putting it on a barge and sending it down the Mississippi River from St. Louis, but that would entail taking it apart, and would have added months of delays before testing could begin. So last year, Boeing asked NASA for a ride.
As part of the deal, Boeing had to come up with an adaptor that could fit the tiny drone where the 122-foot-long shuttle orbiter normally sits. DeVore designed a support system that sat far back on the 747's fuselage, behind the wings, which reduced the amount of material required. NASA just had to loan the 747 and its pilots, chief pilot Jeff Moultrie and pilot Jack "Triple" Nickel. Monday's test was intended to prove Phantom Ray will make the trip to California in one piece.
Lambert Airport, where the test took place, has a storied aviation history of its own. Theodore Roosevelt took off from Lambert Field Oct. 11, 1910, becoming the first president to fly. While working for Robertson Airlines, Charles Lindbergh flew airmail from Lambert Field, and local legend says he got the courage to fly solo across the Atlantic after he braved St. Louis' infamously bad weather.
Boeing officials hope they will be able to analyze flight data Tuesday and send the Phantom Ray to Edwards Air Force Base by Wednesday — if the weather cooperates.
Another waste of taxpayer money, isnt on drone enough?
Why don't you ask the families of our troops if they would rather save money or the lives of their loved ones. Or offer to take a soldiers place if you need the cash so badly.
Things get outdated. You only stay on top by having the newest and biggest toys. Seriously, this thing could save a ton of lives.
Can someone please explain why such an over-sized carrier aircraft had to be used to carry the drone? If it was just for transportation, surely it could have fit inside the 747, a C-5 or a C-17. If it was for aerodynamic testing, even a much smaller aircraft like a 757 could have been used, or a wind tunnel. Or it could have just taken off by itself, as it should be able to. If designed for air-launching, it would have been pylon-mounted under a wing, like an X-15.
Another case of Popsci providing just tiny nibbles of a story, instead of the whole deal. Was it really so hard to provide just a little bit more journalism?
If drones are so friggin' fantastic why won't we use them to blow up a building a bank robber runs into. It's only because we value the lives of innocent Americans so much more than innocent Afghanis, Iraqis, and Pakistanis.
Still I welcome the advance of technology. I just hope we use it wisely.
@MarcusM...ever hear of secrecy?...i bet it wasn't easy getting that photo...gets a little old to hear these $%#^&# negative attacks over nothing...you want more indepth articles?...buy a magazine prescription
using an existing 747 built for such a task is cheaper than creating a new one with a different airframe, think a little before you hit send
Personally I looked at the picture and laughed, because in my mind it was compared to the shuttle, where you wondered how it got off the ground, and here you had what looked like a toy on top of such a big plane! :-)
@drchuck1 - Proofread before you hit send.
"...buy a magazine SUBscription" -FIXED!
"Why don't you ask the families of our troops if they would rather save money or the lives of their loved ones. Or offer to take a soldiers place if you need the cash so badly."
I've got an even better idea... how about we bring everyone back home and let them live their lives among their loved family members and friends, working in productive jobs, and being good citizens in their communities?
Oh wait... 'cause then gas/oil prices would be too high...
Face it, we're in our two wars because some people (*cough Bush Administration *cough*cough) have already decided they would rather save money rather than the lives of the US Soldiers.
its a fixed wing aircraft with a wingspan wider than the fuselage of a 747 757 c-130 c-17 or c-5
Reason for piggybacking:
FAA doesn't allow unmanned flight in civilian airspace. I would assume they were testing modules within the drone to make sure they operate properly within the airframe at that atmosphere and speed. They probably used such a large plane to carry it because they had a lot of testing equipment and operators inside the 747, working during the flight.
@mrwright85 - you get a gold star for your reasonable response. Otherwise, if they wanted to simply save money and ship it, they could have used a helicopter to lift it as well.
"@mrwright85 - you get a gold star for your reasonable response. Otherwise, if they wanted to simply save money and ship it, they could have used a helicopter to lift it as well."
yeah that makes sense, 50 foot wingspan 30,000 pounds no big deal.
WHOA!! watch it there! if ur a "Obama" person, he's doing nothing except spending money on poor people for more votes!
The more money he gives to the stupid poor ppl the less they have the urgency to work. Put it this way Obama is just as worse as Bush, except they waste money on different areas.
Pretty much the more money he gives to the poor people, the more money he takes from the middle class *cough cough* YOU AND ME *cough*
Anyways, I can't believe they got rid of the unmanned ground vehicle program... that would've saved more lives than an airplane.
I want to know why it took 12 hours to lift it up with the crane. The article says there was a 15mph wind, but surely with some guide-wires to steady it the drone would not swing about that much!
*cough @jackass oops I mean @ science123456789, have you looked in the paper latley ? Do you see any good jobs there ? (jackass) because I don't and I am a very hard worker, not lazy but I am......oh gee, how did you put it ???? Oh, a stupid poor person with a stupid poor wife and a stupid poor daughter and a stupid poor son. So I thank obama for helping me through this hard time. I swear I wish I could bitch slap people over the web. So I say think before you vomit out crap and post it on a science board........JACKASS !!!!!
Ok, now. I think anything that can help our troops is a good thing. I've lost friends to the gulf war(s) that this maybe could of helped. So I support this and many more projects we are working on to save lives.
When did popsci turn into politicsci? Why are you guys talking about Bush and Obama? This is a project funded by Boeing for the selfish reason of attracting business and getting a fist full share of the UAV market. And uh, it's super cool.
I'm sure they used the NASA 747 because it was the most cost effective choice. Why that was the case only Boeing knows. They really rushed through this development and that doesn't leave much time for secondary logistics. Of course, it could have been a sneaky marketing ploy as well. Baby Ray riding on great-great grandpa.
That said, that is the future ladies and gents. I just hope the robots don't start flying commercial until after I turn 65.
@Brett Warkoski: The entire project is funded my Boeing. Not one dollar is coming from tax payer money, do your research please.
@mrwright85: NASA-DFRC has the contract for flight testing this baby, so we used one of our two existing 747 shuttle carriers to bring it to Edwards AFB. You're right they can't be tested in civilian airspace, that's why it's being brought to Edwards AFB. The 747 wasn't packed with testing equipment and operators like you think. It's an empty shell with a lot of strain gauges along the cargo compartment. I know, I've been in it.
What's really funny is that Phantom Ray and X-47B are being housed almost a mile a part, I mean.......WHAT?
Obviously a Trollolololol...
His comment had nothing but random propaganda...
The Phantom Ray and it's X-47B stable mate represent a huge leap forward in UAV technology and capability. So many other countries around the world are moving as fast as they can on similar vehicles. The US has a good head-start. We should maintain and even increase that lead. ...and personally I can't wait to see a flying demo at an airshow.