In hindsight it now seems perfectly logical that something looking like the B-2 bomber was bound to one day be developed into an unmanned aircraft, because it is quite clear that any sensible aircraft configuration can be turned into a drone. It started with all variations of classical fixed-wing designs (single and multiple engines, twin booms, shoulder wings, T-tails, V-tails and so forth), then through rotary-wings, swing-wings (although both the manned and unmanned versions have provided mixed results), gliders, to parafoils and blimps. Still missing, however, is an unmanned version of the Harrier. All manned categories of these have been armed, and it is perfectly logical that their unmanned counterparts should jump into their wake. And that process had already started a while ago.
Before turning to the latest example of 'weaponisation', it is interesting to note that flying methods are now also being transposed to the drone world--or at least investigated. While Qinetiq has announced that it had started exploring the possibilities of formation flights, Boeing has completed a series of tests to demonstrate the ability of an unmanned aircraft to refuel behind a tanker. But in this particular case, the term unmanned is both applicable and also non-applicable: unmanned because the aircraft used to > explained David Riley, Boeing Phantom Works Automated Air Refuelling programme. Next stages, to be performed in 2007, will include testing the ability of the aircraft to autonomously manoeuvre around the tanker aircraft and thus put the flight control computer--the station keeping control laws developed by the Phantom Works--through their paces.
Aircraft of the manned variety have long been able to not only drop bombs or missiles but also self-guided weapon dispensers so to keep out of harm's way as much as possible. This capability is now reaching under the wings of the drone. Textron, for example, has developed a GPS-guided Universal Aerial Delivery Dispenser, which was recently tested in conjunction with a US Army RQ-5 Hunter. During the test conducted over the US Army Electronic Proving Ground in Arizona, the dispenser was released by the Hunter at an altitude of about 13,000 feet from where it guided itself to the required point above the ground before ejecting its inert payload.
Coming from Textron, the dispenser is of course ideally suited for top-attack weapons like the BLU-108, but could also be used to place...