A robotic plane deliberately dropped a bomb near a truck at Edwards Air Force Base on Sunday, marking another step forward for technology the U.S. military hopes will one day replace human pilots on dangerous combat missions.
Under human supervision but without human piloting, a prototype of the Boeing Co.’s X-45 took off from the desert base, opened its bomb bay doors, dropped a 250-pound (114-kilogram) Small Smart Bomb and then landed.
The inert bomb struck within inches of the truck it was supposed to hit, Boeing said, adding that had the bomb contained explosives, the target would have been destroyed.
“It’s absolutely a huge step forward for us. It shows the capability of an unmanned airplane to carry weapons,” said Rob Horton, Boeing’s chief operator for the mission. “From the video, you see the weapon going down and a huge cloud of dust and the truck shaking around.”
The X-45A was preprogrammed with the target coordinates and used the satellite-based Global Positioning System to adjust its course.
Horton, who was sitting 80 miles (130 kilometers) from the target, authorized the drone to drop the bomb, which was released from 35,000 feet (10,670 meters) as the plane flew at 442 mph (700 kilometers per hour).
The military sees such aircraft taking part in its most dangerous missions, such as bombing enemy radar and surface-to-air missile batteries, in order to clear the path for human pilots.
The Y-shaped, tailless plane has a 34-foot (10.4-meter) wingspan and weighs 8,000 pounds (3,600 kilograms) empty. It is the first drone designed specifically to carry weapons into combat.
Other robotic planes, including the Predator spy drone currently being used in Afghanistan, have been modified to carry weapons.
Boeing hopes to build hundreds of the X-45 planes, which would cost $10 million to $15 million each.