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Fighting with autonomous aircraft, but how? — Boeing answers with the X-45A

9 March 2012

Fighting with autonomous aircraft, but how? — Boeing answers with the X-45A

Boeing tested the idea of the Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle (UCAV) to patrol and fight autonomously with the X-45. First, the X-45A was built as a scaled down vehicle to test the concept:

  • the scaled down X-45A with an approximate length of 26 feet (8.08m) and approximate wingspan of 33 feet (10.3m)
  • the full scale X-45C with an approximate  length of 39 feet (11.82m) and approximate wingspan of 49 feet (14.85m)

One pair of X-45A UCAVs were built with first flight in May of 2002 and testing ending in 2005. Ultimately it proved able to fly as fast as Mach 0.75 — reaching as high as 40,000 feet (13,200m) — and flying as far as 1300 miles (600km). Munitions were carried within a pair of weapons bays with each bay having four hard points to carry 250 pound (~115kg) JDAM smart bombs. A single turbofan engine is buried within the blended fuselage wing structure. The X-45s flew much like a flying wing since there are no vertical control surfaces with split elevons performing the functions of flaps, air brakes, elevators and rudder.

The testing ended in 2005 with succesful missions pairing both X-45A aircraft on patrols acquiring preplanned targets as well as targets of opportunity communicated from a controller — each aircraft decided which should be tasked with which target with both targets successfully engaged and destroyed. Perhaps sci-fi’s “Skynet” from the Terminator films is not far away?

The X-45A in the images below are of the aircraft on exhibit in the National Air & Space Museum on the National Mall and the other X-45A is displayed within the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force.

Dorsal view of the Boeing X-45A while being installed in Gallery 104 of the National Air & Space Museum on the National Mall in March 2009 — photo by Joseph May

Ventral view of the X-45A with left side weapons bay door open — photo by Joseph May

Perspective of the left side weapons bay — photo by Joseph May

Continuing a long aviation construction tradition, workers who built this X-45A signed their names — photo by Joseph May

Mission symbology on the underside behind the nose as well as the unofficial name of this X-45A "The Elsie Mae" — photo by Joseph May


Here is the fact sheet from the National Air & Space Museum on the National Mall

2 Comments leave one →
  1. 9 March 2012 09:44

    It is great to see that the concept of ‘nose art’ and mission symbols (dating from WW1) has survived into the age of the UAV; thanks very much for this, Joe.

    By the way, you should have received an important email regarding ‘People’s Moquito’


    • travelforaircraft permalink*
      9 March 2012 10:16


      I feel as you do — I was warmly surprised when I was editing the photo (I didn’t notice the signatures at the time I triggered the shutter.

      I replied to the last email you sent regarding the PM and thanks.


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