Northrop Grumman's X-47B unmanned stealth plane achieved cruise mode flight for the first time recently, a major step toward using the bomber aboard aircraft carriers.
During a flight at Edwards Air Force Base on September 30, the robo-plane retracted its landing gear and flew in cruise configuration for the first time. The test helped prove its navigation hardware and software.
The flight was part of the X-47B's "envelope expansion" under the Navy's Unmanned Combat Air System Carrier Demonstration (UCAS-D) program. Northrop has produced two X-47Bs for the Navy and the aircraft is slated to begin carrier trials in 2013.
With a wingspan of 62.1 feet, the plane has a maximum payload of 4,500 pounds and a range of over 2,100 nautical miles.
The X-47B can fly at "high subsonic" speed, faster than Predator and Reaper drones. It can also be remotely piloted or programmed in advance for mission objectives.
"Last week's flight gave us our first clean look at the aerodynamic cruise performance of the X-47B air system...and it is proving out all of our predictions," Janis Pamiljans, Navy UCAS program manager for Northrop Grumman, was quoted as saying in an October 10 release.
"Reaching this critical test point demonstrates the growing maturity of the air system, and its readiness to move to the next phase of flight testing."