Even with recent advances in rapid prototyping techniques and computer aided design, developing new aircraft is an expensive venture—especially when the US Department of Defence isn't footing the bill. So what on Earth could have coerced Lockheed to destroy the only prototype of its blended wing UAV bomber in mid-flight?
Developed and funded by Lockheed's Skunk Works advanced research department, the P-175 Polecat unmanned high-altitude, long-range flying wing demonstrator was envisioned as both a stealthy surveillance platform and long-range bomber—equal parts Global Hawk and B-2 Spirit. Its all-composite body measured 90 feet from wingtip to wingtip and was built from just 200 individual components. A pair of 3,010 lbf turbofan engines enabled the 9,000lb Polecat to carry up to 1,000lbs of ISR sensors and munitions for up to four hours at a time.
The Polecat made its public debut at the 2006 Farnborough Airshow, reportedly just 18 months after its construction began. Lockheed lauded the P-175 as a test-bed for not just the company's rapid prototyping technology but also its next-gen autonomous flight systems as well. However, these cutting-edge flight controls would soon prove to be the UAV's downfall.
During a test flight above the Nellis test site in Nevada in December of 2006, the P-175 suffered from what Lockheed vaguely described as an "irreversible unintentional failure in the flight termination ground equipment, which caused the aircraft's automatic fail-safe flight termination mode to activate." Essentially, an undisclosed malfunction in the UAV's command station inadvertently triggered the P-175's self-destruct routine—an irreversible fail safe installed to prevent the aircraft from straying beyond Nellis' airspace and venturing into civilian areas—which sent the prototype crashing to the ground, damaging it beyond repair. Though, if it's that easy to install geographic-based self-destruct routines during the testing phase, why aren't we putting it on every UAV we operate?