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Phantom Ray - Future of UAV's?

The Phantom Ray is a stealth unmanned combat aerial vehicle developed by Boeing using company funds and is currently being used as a testbed for UAV technologies. It made its first flight in December last year and is currently being used in a series of 10 test flights over six months involving a myriad of battlefield duties such as surveillance, ground attack, and autonomous in-air refueling.

The Phantom Ray is derived from the X-45C aircraft. It is fairly large, being 36 feet long and having a wingspan of 50 feet (about 4 cars placed horizontally side-by-side). The aircraft weighs about 36 500 pounds and flies at a cruising speed of 614 mph, one-eight of the speed of sound.

The Phantom Ray will not go into service as a combat aircraft but will instead only be used as a testbed. Nevertheless, with its sleek form and white paint job, the Phantom Ray definitely looks like an aircraft of the future.

Submarines as Aircraft Carriers?

The details are not clear but what is for sure is that the US Navy is planning to equip their ageing nuclear ballistic missile submarine fleet with aerial drones in the missile launch tubes. Since the end of the Cold War in the 80's, the nuclear threat is much diminished and nuclear ballistic missile submarines have lost much of their value. As a result, the US Navy is now trying to find new ways to utilize these underwater warships besides scraping them.

In September of 2009, the US Navy revealed quite a large extent of this program in an interview with Rear Admiral Mark Kenny. The Admiral stated that already 4 of the Cold War-era missile boats have been stripped of its nuclear missiles to make room for conventional weapons, SEAL deployment chambers, and aerial/aquatic drones. Among these that the Admiral mentioned are: a torpedo-sized drone used for eavesdropping, a 45 pound possibly armed aerial drone, and a 15 pound aerial reconnaissance drone that relays video and radio info back to the submarine.

Not much else has been released by the US Navy but it is very possible that the submarines are now a viable platform to launch these drones. This has much implications for the future of naval warfare. Maybe submarines will become the new aircraft carriers, being able to submerge thus giving more protection and stealth. This idea is not very far-fetched as the Japanese have experimented with underwater aircraft launching with their I-14 submarine during WWII.

SpaceX's New Rocket - Most Powerful Private Rocket Ever Built

As NASA is wrapping up its space shuttle program, private space corporations are beginning to take a stronghold in space exploration. Recently, SpaceX or Space Explorations Technologies Inc. announced a new rocket called the Falcon Heavy that is only second in size to the Apollo Era's Saturn V.

The Falcon Heavy is planned to have a payload of 117 000 pounds, twice that of the Space Shuttle and rival company United Launch Alliance LLC's Delta IV. The new rocket is also much cheaper per launch, costing $ 80 - 120 million. This is a lot less than the cost of Delta IV ($ 140 - 160 million).

The first demonstration flight of SpaceX's new rocket will be sometime between November and December of 2012 at California's Vandenburg Air Force Base.

The company already has successes with its operational rockets. NASA has given SpaceX a $ 1.6 billion contract to send supplies to the International Space Station through SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft on the Falcon 9, the predecessor of the Falcon Heavy.

The Secretive X-37 - Unmanned US Spacecraft

The Boeing X-37 OTV (Orbital Test Vehicle) is an unmanned spacecraft similar to the space shuttle in appearance that made its first flight on April 22 of last year. The flight lasted for 225 days and the OTV successfully landed on Vandenburg Air Force Base on December 3 of that year.

The OTV is powered by solar energy during its orbit. It features new thermal protection technology, avionics systems, and an autonomous guidance system.

The OTV has generated much controversy. Amateur astronomers have claimed that they have spotted the spacecraft in orbit and states that the course the spacecraft is on brings it over hotspots around the globe such as Iran, North Korea, and Afghanistan. The China Daily newspaper picked up the story and stated that the X-37 is raising concerns of a space arms race.

Right now, the X-37 is already well on its way orbiting the planet on its second mission. It launched on March 5 this year in Cape Canaveral.

Hand-launched UAV - The RQ-11B Raven

Since production of the AeroVironment RQ-11B Raven began in 2004, more than 13 000 units have been built. These small hand-launched remote-controlled unmanned aerial vehicle or SUAV were originally developed for the US military but have now been adopted by several other countries.

The Raven is now widely used by the US military for reconnaissance, scouting, surveillance, and target acquisition purposes both day and night. It can fly for about 60-90 minutes in an operational radius of 10 km (6 miles). The Raven can either be remote-controlled from the ground or fly autonomous missions using GPS waypoint navigation. Its small 1.9 kg (4.2 pounds) airframe usually harnesses CCD color video cameras and infrared night vision camera. The aircraft is powered by a small propeller located at the back of the wings.

Landing for the RQ-11B is not a problem as it can automatically fly itself to a predetermined landing point and perform a near vertical (1 foot down, 1 foot forward) "Autoland" descent. If its wings snap or break off on landing, a new one can easily be attached.