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UFO-Like Drone Makes First Cruise-Mode Flight

Northrop Grumman announced, yesterday, that the X-47B drone it is developing for the U.S. Navy had flown in cruise mode — with its landing gear retracted — for the first time during a test flight from Edwards Air Force Base.

The aerospace company called it a "major milestone," but what caught our attention were simply the pictures of this tail-less plane that looks like hybrid UFO and a B-2 bomber:

<p>Wheels up. </p>
Christian Turner / Northrop Grumman
Northrop Grumman

Wheels up.

The X-47B will be the first drone to land on an aircraft carrier deck. CNET provides a bit more on the tech side of things:

The flight was part of the X-47B's "envelope expansion" under the Navy's Unmanned Combat Air System Carrier Demonstration (UCAS-D) program. Northrop has produced two X-47Bs for the Navy and the aircraft is slated to begin carrier trials in 2013.

With a wingspan of 62.1 feet, the plane has a maximum payload of 4,500 pounds and a range of over 2,100 nautical miles.

The X-47B can fly at "high subsonic" speed, [faster] than Predator and Reaper drones. It can also be remotely piloted or programmed in advance for mission objectives.

Popular Science reports that one of the big differences between this unmanned plane and the Predator and Reaper drones is that this one is jet powered instead of propeller driven.

"Last week's flight gave us our first clean look at the aerodynamic cruise performance of the X-47B air system... and it is proving out all of our predictions," Janis Pamiljans, vice president and Navy UCAS program manager for Northrop Grumman's Aerospace Systems sector, said in a statement. "Reaching this critical test point demonstrates the growing maturity of the air system, and its readiness to move to the next phase of flight testing."

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Eyder Peralta
Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.