While some bot makers are busying themselves designing AI to simulate humans' natural and distinct lack of intelligence, it's nice to see there are still old-fashioned researchers out there keeping the Skynet dream alive. Northrop Grumman's aeronautics gurus have paired together a Global Hawk unmanned aircraft with a manned Proteus ship way up in the skies -- 45,000 feet, to be precise -- with the vessels of ingenuity managing to fly in tandem at a distance as short as 40 feet. Unsurprisingly, this is the first time such intimacy has been reached between UAVs (the Proteus had a monitoring crew on board to ensure the insurance bill wasn't through the roof) in high altitude, and the ultimate goal of having two Global Hawks doing the deed without any human intervention is said to be within reach by next year. That's when these light and agile air drones will be able to refuel themselves and go on for a mighty 120 hours in the air... plenty of time to complete a well planned extermination down below, if one were so inclined.
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Photo and Video Release -- Landmark Flight Brings Program One Step Closer to Demonstrating Autonomous Aerial Refueling Between Two Unmanned Aircraft

SAN DIEGO, March 9, 2011 (GLOBE NEWSWIRE) -- On Jan. 21, Northrop Grumman Corporation (NYSE:NOC), Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and NASA Dryden Flight Research Center took a major step toward demonstrating autonomous aerial refueling between two unmanned, high altitude aircraft, an operation never before performed.

Photos and video accompanying this release are available at: http://www.irconnect.com/noc/press/pages/news_releases.html?d=215774

In a key risk reduction flight test, Northrop Grumman's Proteus test aircraft and a NASA Global Hawk flew as close as 40 feet apart at an altitude of 45,000 feet, an industry-setting record.

The flight test was conducted in the challenging high altitude environment required for refueling of high altitude long endurance (HALE) unmanned aircraft systems (UAS). Wake turbulence between the two aircraft as well as engine performance and flight control responsiveness in the stratosphere were evaluated. Simulated breakaway maneuvers were also conducted. The January flight was key to reducing risks as the program prepares for autonomous aerial refueling of two Global Hawks in the spring of 2012.

"Demonstrating close formation flight of two high altitude aircraft, whether manned or unmanned, is a notable accomplishment," said Geoffrey Sommer, KQ-X program manager at Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems sector. "When you add autonomous flight of both aircraft into the mix, as we will do later in the KQ-X program, you gain a capability that has mission applications far beyond just aerial refueling."

The $33 million DARPA KQ-X program will demonstrate autonomous fuel transfer between two Global Hawks, enabling flights of up to one week endurance. KQ-X is a follow-on to a 2006 DARPA Autonomous Aerial Refueling Demonstration (AARD), in joint effort with NASA Dryden, which used an F-18 fighter jet as a surrogate unmanned aircraft to autonomously refuel through a probe and drogue from a 707 tanker.

Northrop Grumman supports the operation of the two Global Hawks used in the KQ-X program under the terms of a Space Act Agreement with its NASA Dryden partner and is responsible for all engineering design, as well as modification of both aircraft.

Northrop Grumman Corporation is a leading global security company whose 120,000 employees provide innovative systems, products, and solutions in aerospace, electronics, information systems, shipbuilding and technical services to government and commercial customers worldwide. For more information visit www.northropgrumman.com