If Mike Heinz of Boeing's Phantom Works is right, battlefields in 2020 could be packed with unmanned vehicles, both on the ground and in the air.

And while the fire-fight rages, far overhead pilotless cargo aircraft will be shuttling around the globe, mixing freely with passenger airliners where humans still have a hand in controlling height, speed and direction.


If that sounds vaguely sci-fi, it's because the Phantom Works is a ‘virtual' company, unlike Lockheed's infamous Skunk Works that was hidden away in the Nevada desert.

Created just nine months ago, it is already proving its worth by bringing all the company's unmanned projects together in what Heinz describes as "a market segment which is potentially huge".

More than 4,500 Boeing employees across the USA work for the Phantom Works ‘virtual team'.

It's effectively the company's R&D arm and is currently working on almost 500 projects, including ground-based intiatives in very non-traditional areas.

Heinz, who is vice-president and general manager of unmanned systems for Boeing, says: "What the 20th century was to manned flight, so the 21st will be to unmanned.

"But it's no use producing military hardware which takes 15 or 20 years to get from drawing board into service.

"Like the products we're designing, we have to be fast and agile and I believe that we need to reduce that timeframe to three or four years, otherwise the technology will be obsolete long before a new battle system enters service.


"We call this ‘spiral development' and it involves accelerating development and procurement as well as developing partnerships, sometimes with non-aerospace companies, and inserting new technologies, all far more rapidly than before."

The first examples of this new way of doing things include the maiden flight of the X-45A UCAV; the first phase contract for the UCAV-N; initial contracts for the DARPA (Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency)/US Army UCAR; primary flight (on 19 June) of the Scan Eagle low-cost, high-endurance UAV; and the preparation for flight of the X-50A canard rotor-wing UCAV.

The UAV has been something of a ‘Cinderella product' ever since its inception in the latter days of the Second World War and the Korean conflict in the early 1950s.

Says Heinz: "There's a growing need for situational awareness, safety and enhanced payload.

"The vehicles we're now designing and producing will be so safe and reliable that they'll even be able to share controlled airspace with commercial and civil aircraft.

"We'll see UAVs and UCAVs flying in multi-ship formations – with no man in the loop – undertaking missions that are regarded as being dull, dirty and dangerous by traditional military pilots and planners."

This new impetus – partly provoked by the international war against terrorism post-11 September – has helped to generate an understanding within Boeing of the true value of unmanned vehicles, both to it and to the industry in general.

"I anticipate that we're dealing with an industry sector that will be worth tens of billions of dollars within the next decade.


"I expect that Boeing UCAVs will be used for SEAD (suppression of enemy air defences) and electronic attack, while UCARs will be undertaking armed reconnaissance in co-operation with Commanche and Apache helicopters, before 2010."

Intriguingly, Heinz says that Boeing is also working on unmanned ground combat vehicles too, so the vision of a battlefield ‘without a man in the loop' looms ever.

Source: Flight Daily News