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UFO-like drone hits cruise mode

Christian Turner

The X-47B, a stealth drone under development for the U.S. Navy, successfully retracted its landing gear and flew in its cruise configuration for the first time on Sept. 30.

A stealth U.S. Navy drone — one designed to take off from and land on moving aircraft carriers at sea — successfully retracted its landing gear and flew in cruise configuration for the first time, engineers announced today. 

The test flight at Edwards Air Force Base on Sept. 30 also helped validate the hardware and software that will allow the X-47B to land with precision at sea, among the harshest aviation environments known, said the drone's maker, Northrop Grumman.

The tail-less plane is 38 feet long and has a 62-foot wingspan. In the images released today it looks like a UFO straight out of a 1950s cartoon. 

The military is hoping unmanned aircraft will allow aircraft carriers to remain out of reach of land-based missile systems while they launch airstrikes and reconnaissance missions. 

Northrop Grumman

Earlier photo of X-47B, photographed from above while sitting on runway.

First flight of the X-47B took place in February. The latest test flight is part of on-going "envelope expansion" flights used to demonstrate the aircraft performance under a variety altitude, speed and fuel-load conditions. 

"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," Janis Pamiljans, vice president and Navy UCAS program manager for Northrop Grumman's Aerospace Systems sector, said in statement.

The aircraft will transition to Naval Air Station in Patuxent River, Md., later this year for further land-based testing, and will move to at-sea demonstrations in 2013. By 2014, Northrop Grumman intends to demonstrate autonomous in-air refueling.

More on Navy technology:

John Roach is a contributing writer for msnbc.com.

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