Planes without pilots

With a tailless 27-foot long airframe and a 34-foot wingspan, the X-45A is designed to carry a variety of weapons and can be stored, unassembled, in small containers for up to 10 years.

2025. War with America. Night after night, wave upon wave of fighters and bombers pour in from the desert sky, their speed, manoeuvrability and unremitting attacks bamboozling and decimating ground defences.

However, wave goodbye to the daring fighter ace risking life behind enemy lines, for tomorrow’s pilots will be divorced from the grisly reality of war. Instead, the 21st century answer to Biggles will be a computer expert, controlling any number of planes by remote control from a safe location.

Far be it for DE to predict the outbreak of war, but if announcements by Boeing and the US airforce are anything to go by, this could well be the shape of future conflicts. Recently unveiled at Boeing’s St Louis headquarters, the X-45A Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle (UCAV) is the latest development in America’s long running research into pilotless aircraft.

With a tailless 27-foot long airframe and a 34-foot wingspan, the X-45A is designed to carry a variety of weapons and can be stored, unassembled, in small containers for up to 10 years. It can be reassembled in about one hour, weighs 8,000 pounds (empty) and can carry a 3,000 pound payload.

Building an aircraft without a pilot in mind opens up a range of fascinating design opportunities. A variety of cost and weight penalties are associated with the presence of a human pilot, including constrained forebodies, large canopies, displays and environmental control systems. The aircraft’s manoeuvre capabilities are also limited by the pilot’s physiological limits such as g tolerance.

Also, it’s estimated that around 80% of the useful life of a combat aircraft is devoted to pilot training. The UCAV system is being developed by the Boeing Phantom Works R&D division under a $131 million, 42-month cost-share agreement with the Defense Advanced Projects Research Agency (DAPRA) and the US Air Force.

The government envisions a fully operational system will have a unit cost of about $10 million, less than one-third of the Joint Strike Fighter.

Flight-testing is expected to begin next spring at the Edwards Air Force Base in California.