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US tests unmanned spy plane Global Observer

LOS ANGELES (PTI): Heralding a new era in modern drone technology, the US has secretly test-flown Global Observer – one of the three new revolutionary unmanned spy planes that can survey an area larger than Afghanistan at a single glance while remaining airborne for a week.

The $30 million experimental spy plane with a wingspan almost the size of a Boeing 747 took to the skies over the Mojave Desert in California on January 6 in a secret test flight that could result in robotic planes flying higher, faster and with more firepower, the Los Angeles Times reported Tuesday.

The Global Observer, built by AeroVironment Inc., is capable of flying for days at a stratosphere-skimming 65,000 feet, out of range of most anti-aircraft missiles.

The plane is built to survey 280,000 square miles -- an area larger than Afghanistan -- at a single glance. That would give the Pentagon an "unblinking eye" over the war zone and offer a cheaper and more effective alternative to spy satellites watching from outer space, the report said.

The robotic aircraft is one of three revolutionary drones being tested in coming weeks at Edwards Air Force Base.

Another is the bat-winged X-47B drone built by Northrop Grumman Corp., which could carry laser-guided bombs and be launched from an aircraft carrier.

The third is Boeing Co.'s Phantom Ray drone that could slip behind enemy lines to knock out radar installations, clearing the way for fighters and bombers.

These aircraft would represent a major technological advance over the Predator and Reaper drones that the Obama administration has deployed as a central element of the US military campaign in Afghanistan.

Unlike most of the current fleet of more than 7,000 drones, the new remotely piloted planes will have jet engines and the ability to evade enemy radar, the report said.

"We are looking at the next generation of unmanned systems," said Phil Finnegan, an aerospace expert with Teal Group, a research firm. "As the US looks at potential future conflicts, there needs to be more capable systems."

Finnegan pointed out that propeller-driven Predator and Reaper drones are not fast or stealthy enough to thread through anti-aircraft missile batteries. Boeing's Phantom Ray and Northrop's X-47B, by comparison, "can enter contested air space, attack the enemy, and leave without detection on a radar screen," he said.

The Global Observer, which was tested last week, is designed for reconnaissance and would not carry weapons. But it would greatly extend surveillance capabilities of drones.

Current spy planes can stay airborne for only about 30 hours. The Global Observer is designed to fly up to a week at a time, and company officials say it may be ready to go into service by this year end.


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