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Drone thought to be UFO on cross-country trip from Edwards AFB

June 15, 2012|By W.J. Hennigan
  • The two X-47B unmanned aircraft completed 23 flights during the airworthiness test phase at Edwards AFB. Next phase will be carrier suitability testing at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Md.
The two X-47B unmanned aircraft completed 23 flights during the airworthiness… (Northrop Grumman Corp. )

The X-47B, the Navy’s new experimental drone, caused a stir in the Washington area when residents mistook the sleek, bat-winged robotic jet for a UFO.

The drone was strapped to the back of a big rig en route this week to Naval Air Station Patuxent River in southern Maryland from Edwards Air Force Base in the Mojave Desert.

Along the way motorists snapped photos and took to Twitter to describe their astonishment. Others, according to a Fox station affiliate in Washington, were so perplexed they called police.

The drone, built by Northrop Grumman Corp., is designed to land on the deck of an aircraft carrier -- one of aviation's most difficult maneuvers.

The X-47B was built behind barbed-wire fences and double security doors at Northrop's expansive facility in Palmdale under a $635.8-million contract awarded by the Navy in 2007. The drone marks a major shift from existing robotic aircraft.

Currently, combat drones are controlled remotely by a human pilot. The X-47B could carry out a combat mission controlled entirely by a computer. A human pilot designs a flight path and sends it on its way and a computer program guides it from a ship to target and back.

The drone that completed the cross-country move to Maryland is the second of two X-47Bs built by Northrop. The first one made the trip in December and also elicited a "UFO sighting" response from motorists.

Both drones made their first flight and subsequent test flights at Edwards. But he next stage of the demonstration program begins at Patuxent River.

Northrop officials said carrier testing of the aircraft will begin later this summer.


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Follow Hennigan on Twitter @wjhenn

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