Boeing’s newest research aircraft got a public unveiling yesterday, which is interesting for such a future-facing aircraft that’s surely destined for a ton of cloak-and-dagger work. It’s an unmanned spy plane, and even its looks are creepy.
It’s called, fittingly enough, the Phantom Ray–words very suited to its future spying role and its sleek lifting-body shape that is highly reminiscent of those wondrous flat fish. Rolled out yesterday at Boeing’s St. Louis plant, it’s actually not scheduled to fly until December (and then will have many months of in-flight and ground-based testing). We’re not even sure exactly what it’s for, other than to test a number of future technologies for surveillance. This likely includes such tech as synthetic aperture radar (for high-resolution radar “maps” of battlefields), infra-red and possibly lidar surveillance systems, electronic snooping and jamming gear and so on. There’s a hint or two that it’s actually a testbed for unmanned combat purposes, which may mean there’ll be provision for launching missiles (or other “advanced” weaponry) aboard the Ray too.
If all that war-fighting tech doesn’t tickle your pickle, then the design of the aircraft itself might. The shape of the Ray takes inspiration from airframe designs that stretch all the way back to World War II, with German research into lifting body aircraft, passing through the famous “Flying Wing” and ending at in-service aircraft like the other-worldly B2 Spirit bomber. Its design is intended to result in very low radar cross-section, so it doesn’t betray its presence to enemy radar systems, and the engine is buried deep within the 50-foot wide body so that there’s little in the way of an infra-red signature to let missiles achieve a lock on it either. Even its surveillance payloads will be blended into the structure, and it’s likely that any weaponry aboard will “pop out” when it’s needed, before retracting inside the vehicle so it’s hidden again. As a result of all these requirements, the aircraft is smooth, a minimalistic sleek blend of form and function that’s almost like a Jonathan Ive Apple product.
And in fact, Boeing has revealed that the Ray may have more in common with Ive’s shiny consumer products than you may imagine. The ‘plane was fast-tracked into existence partly thanks to earlier research into aircraft like this, but also with the aid of rapid prototyping and rapid manufacturing techniques. Boeing is obviously going to be careful about telling us exactly how this process worked, but we can guess that it involved RP production of “non-structural” plastic parts to test fitness, then computer-aided robot machining of “real” components out of metal and composite materials. This is how products like the iPad (and Iron Man’s gear) get designed, of course, and in this case it represents a significant boon for Boeing, where the complexities of the Phantom Ray’s design would mean a prohibitively long production process using more conventional techniques.