Spencer Ackerman and Raya Jalabi / The Guardian – 2013-07-16 23:39:00
X-47B drone lands on USS George HW Bush in mid-Atlantic â€“ but navy has no plans to add this particular drone to its airfleet
US Navy Makes History by Landing Unmanned Drone on Aircraft Carrier
Spencer Ackerman and Raya Jalabi / The Guardian
NEW YORK (July 10, 2013) — The US navy made aviation history on Wednesday by successfully landing a highly autonomous drone on an aircraft carrier at sea.
The batwing-shaped X-47B executed one of the hardest maneuvers in aviation, catching the arrested-landing gear on the deck of the USS George HW Bush off the mid-Atlantic coast, the navy announced Wednesday. Never before has a robot performed a feat executable only by the navy’s top pilots.
“Your grandchildren and great-grandchildren and mine will be reading about this historic event in their history books,” said Rear Admiral Mat Winter, the head of the navy’s drone programs.
The drone, followed by manned chase aircraft, flew from a Maryland airstrip on a pre-programmed flight path closely overseen by navy officials on land and on the deck of the Bush. It carried the call-sign Salty Dog 502.
Once cleared by the landing signal officer, who had the distinction of being the first person to approve a robot for landing at sea, Salty Dog 502 put its hook down, caught the wire, and wrote a new chapter in naval history.
While 70 nations have drones of some sort, widely varying in sophistication and military applicability, only the US can boast of a flying robot the size of an F/A-18 Super Hornet and powered by a jet engine able to take off and land on the deck of a ship. The X-47B first took off from an aircraft carrier, the Bush, in May, although it landed on terra firma.
The navy does not anticipate incorporating drones onto its carrier air wings until the end of the the decade. If all goes according to plan, the soon-to-be-armed drones will work alongside manned naval and conduct both spying and strike missions. Today’s landing was a pivotal moment for a development that will give the US military a major advantage in the growing global robotics arms race.
The X-47B, constructed by Northrop Grumman, is a different kind of drone from the Predators and Reapers that have become global symbols of American military power. Contrary to popular understanding, those drones are not actually pilotless. People, usually US air force officers and contractors, fly them remotely, controlling them through instruments resembling those found in a traditional cockpit.
The X-47B is pilotless. Its operations occur thanks to lines of software code that its onboard computer systems execute. Its flight paths are pre-programmed â€“ such as the one that took the X-47B from Patuxent River naval air station in Maryland to the Bush off the Virginia coast â€“ although navy officials can take control in the event of a malfunction.
But the X-47B will never join the navy’s airfleet. It’s a demonstrator — albeit an expensive one, as the program that funded it cost an estimated $1.4bn over eight years — not the aircraft that the navy will ultimately use to conduct surveillance and combat flights far out to sea.
Northrop and the navy built, tested and re-tested the drone to see if they could successfully prove that a largely autonomous drone could operate from a carrier, a challenge both for the robot and for the human sailors aboard. Now that they have, the navy talks about mothballing the robot â€“ right after its ultimate triumph.
Having completed the demonstration program, the navy will now put its energy into the X-47B’s successor, the Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike robot, or UClass. The navy wants to use UClass to augment its carrier air wings — it will not replace manned pilots — providing surveillance flights longer than human pilots can withstand and, if necessary, firing its weapons in battle scenarios too dangerous for human pilots.
Unlike the X-47B, the UClass robots will be armed, although navy officers insist that weapons releases will only occur at a human’s direction.
Four companies are competing for the UClass contract, each with their own design for the forthcoming drone. Northrop is one of them, raising questions about whether the navy will award a potentially lucrative contract to the same company that built the X-47B demonstrator. Northrop officials quietly lament that the navy might alternatively scrap its proven design to avoid the appearance of favoritism.
“All of the technologies are matured,” said Captain Jaime Engdahl, the navy’s program manager for the X-47B, who will move on to a new assignment. “We’ve tested all the concepts and operations aboard the flight deck team and the air vehicles are performing really well right now. Really, the technical tasks are all complete.”
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