D.C. beltway ‘UFO’ up close at air base

D.C. beltway ‘UFO’ up close at air base

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X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System (Fitzgerald / WTTG) X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System (Fitzgerald / WTTG)
X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System (Fitzgerald / WTTG) X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System (Fitzgerald / WTTG)
X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System (Fitzgerald / WTTG) X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System (Fitzgerald / WTTG)
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Remember the ‘UFO' that motorists spotted along D.C. highways back in June?

The saucer-shaped object caused a stir in the area prompting many to call 911 and to post photos on Twitter.

We later learned the mysterious object was an experimental, unmanned aircraft.

The aircraft was delivered to the Patuxent Naval Air Station for testing, and on Tuesday, FOX 5 got its first close-up look at the drone.

The Navy calls it the X-47B. This is what the future looks like.

The Navy put the plane on a flatbed for its trip to Maryland, never guessing shutterbug drivers would put it on Twitter.

"We all got a laugh out of it," said U.S. Navy Test Engineer Matt Funk. "There was nothing real secretive about it, but we didn't go out of our way to publicize it."

Now for the first time, the Navy is pulling the wraps off the X-47B, which is built by Northrop Grumman. They hope it will be the first of a new wave of unmanned military aircraft.

"This is one of those that's a demonstration program and it really excites the interest of a lot of folks," said U.S. Navy Captain Jamie Engdahl.

The X-47B is flown completely by its computer. But if it loses contact with air traffic controllers, it flies back to its base like a homing pigeon.

Calling it a drone is an understatement. The stealth aircraft will takeoff and land on aircraft carriers, which no drone has ever done. It carries a 4,500-pound payload, but the Navy won't say what kind of payload.

"This is what you'll see at any Navy or Marine Corps base within the next decade," said U.S. Navy Rear Adm. Randolf Mahr.

And while the X-47B has all sorts of new technology and maneuverability, there is one thing it can't out maneuver: fiscal realities and shrinking Pentagon budgets, which puts pressure on its creators.

"Each and every one of us are taxpayers, so it's not somebody else's money, it's our resource together," said Rear Adm. Mathias Winter.

On Sunday, the estimated $800 million aircraft made its first 35 minute flight at Patuxent River. Navy officials say they want to prove the X-47B an investment, not just an expensive experiment.

The real test is coming next year in 2013. That is when the Navy is going to fly the X-47B and land it on the deck of a real aircraft carrier. That is going to be important, but ultimately, the idea is that these unmanned planes will one day work side-by-side with piloted jet fighters.

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