Team up with us for 99¢

Boeing's best hope for growing its share of the burgeoning market for combat drones — capable of stalking and killing enemies without risking U.S. pilots — first took flight on Monday, looking like a giant sting ray strapped to the back of one of the company's signature 747s.

Taking a short trip over the region, the Phantom Ray left Lambert-St. Louis International Airport on top of the plane that NASA normally uses to transport the space shuttle orbiter.

The flight's brevity belied Boeing's grand ambition in developing an unmanned aircraft capable of a wide range of military missions: supporting intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance; suppressing enemy air defenses; electronic attack; aerial fueling; even fighting enemy jets. The prototype vehicle was carried aloft at 1:44 p.m. and returned 50 minutes later, to the applause and gloved high-fives of a couple of dozen Boeing and NASA employees on the tarmac.

The Phantom Ray is "very important because Boeing has put a high priority on unmanned vehicles," said Philip Finnegan, director of corporate analysis at the Teal Group, a defense market research firm.

Global spending on unmanned aerial vehicles will increase from $4.9 billion in 2010 to more than $11.5 billion in 2019, according to the Teal Group, based in Fairfax, Va.

The U.S. military currently uses aerial unmanned aircraft in Afghanistan and Iraq, including General Atomics Aeronautical Systems' MQ-9 Reaper. In September, the Air Force signed a $38.3 million contract for six additional Reapers.

Meanwhile, Boeing has six unmanned airborne systems that vary widely in price, from about $100,000 each for its ScanEagle to a recent $29.9 million contract to supply two A160T Hummingbirds to the Marine Corps.

Boeing's efforts come at time when its defense business faces growing challenges. The loss of the Joint Strike Fighter contract to Lockheed Martin in 2001 locked the company out of new fighter work for decades to come. Meanwhile, Boeing has struggled in its competition for the Air Force's next generation aerial refueling tanker contract, while the company's massive Future Combat Systems program was scaled back last year.

Monday's test flight was the first time any craft other than the space shuttle orbiter has been transported on the exterior of the NASA plane.

"There's some apprehension when you do the first of anything," said Craig Brown, Phantom Ray program manager for Boeing.

On a bitterly cold afternoon, where the temperature hovered in the high teens, the cloudless blue sky provided ideal conditions for the test flight, said NASA project engineer Jill Brigham, who was at Lambert Monday. "There's a bit of excitement and a bit of relief," she said.

NASA's plane will serve as a taxi to transport the Phantom Ray to the Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base in California, where the Phantom Ray will begin its first test flights in early 2011. NASA officials will analyze the data from Monday's flight to determine whether to go ahead with the planned six-hour flight to Edwards today or Wednesday.

The Phantom Ray has a 50-foot wingspan. Transporting it by truck would have taken three months, which would include the time needed to disassemble, reassemble and conduct additional testing, Brown said.

Built in St. Louis County, where Boeing's defense business is based, the Phantom Ray has been in development for more than two years. It is designed as a demonstration vehicle to serve as a "flying test bed" for future technology opportunities, according to the company, and does not yet have a contract.

But whether the Department of Defense will increase its spending on unmanned aerial vehicles is in question, according to military analysts, particularly in light of Defense Secretary Robert Gates' August announcement that he plans to cut future defense spending.

"The Phantom Ray would be a high-end unmanned aerial vehicle, and the demand right now is for lower-end capabilities," Finnegan said.

Still, he says Boeing is in a good position to develop unmanned aircraft.

Developing the Phantom Ray carries risks for Boeing. The vehicle evolved out of the company's previous work on the X-45C, a small combat plane that the Pentagon wanted as an unmanned supplement to Air Force and Navy fighter jets.

In 2007, just a week before flight testing was to begin, the Pentagon cut the X-45C program, choosing to focus on carrier-based unmanned fighters for the Navy.

Some analysts also wonder whether unmanned aircraft have a role conducting more sophisticated tasks.

Unmanned aircraft will have a tougher time surviving missions that place them in contact with manned enemy aircraft, said Loren Thompson, a defense analyst at the Lexington Institute, a think tank based in Arlington, Va.

"The future of unmanned aircraft is not clear," he said.

Get updates every weekday morning about the latest news in the St. Louis business community.