Catching a Phantom Ray standing still, photo by Boeing
Catching a Phantom Ray standing still, photo by Boeing

Boeing’s Phantom Ray unmanned defence systems test vehicle looks the part of a 1950’s comic book, but will it be able to tell the difference between a wedding party, a school, or village, and a collection of baddies in central Asia?

That’s the burning question. It’s a serious one, but the answers probably lie in how remote war fare uses ‘intelligence’ rather than technology.

The Phantom Ray was revealed overnight in St Louis and will fly late this year on a series of test missions exploring automatic in-flight refuelling, and strike and surveillance capabilities. And, one might hope, the foolproof transit of air space used by airliners.

The device conforms to the obvious requirements of ‘stealthy’ flight, using radar deflecting and absorbing materials and cross sections, as well as a propulsion system with a very low thermal signature and radio quiet on-board systems.

It isn’t very big, or fast, or high flying, being only 10.9 metres long, 15.2 metres wide, and intended to cruise at a mere mach 0.8 at 12,000 metres.

But if no-one can see or hear you, being slow and comparatively low is irrelevant.

The revelation of the Phantom Ray contrasts with another smart flying device at the ultra light end of the scale shown off by Boeing in February, which looks at first glance like the model planes that get flown in parks or beaches.

The RM-1 gets hand launched in a St Louis stadium, photo by Boeing
The RM-1 gets launched in a St Louis stadium, Boeing photo

This is the 2.5 kilogram battery powered Rapid Manufacture or RM-1 demonstrator, designed to be easily carried, and overlooked once launched, to carry out individual hits or intelligence gathering for very specific purposes at short notice.

Fascinating. While it looks like nothing more than a sleek powered model plane, sort of like a version of the rapidly manufactured rubber band powered devices I recall launching on short often disastrous flights at high school, it offers something Australia could afford to invest in, while delivering the same defence capabilities as the Joint Strike Fighter.