UAS & Robotics

Navy attempts to land drone on aircraft carrier for the first time

The Navy will attempt to land a drone the size of a fighter jet aboard an aircraft carrier for the first time Wed., July 18. Successful execution would mean the U.S. will be able to launch unmanned aircraft systems without having to use other countries’ bases in the future. The X-47B is capable of carrying weapons and is designed to be a forerunner for a drone program that will provide around-the-clock intelligence, surveillance and targeting.

The X-47B will take off from the Patuxent River naval air station in Maryland and will land on the USS George H.W. Bush off the Virginia coast. The UAS will attempt an arrested landing by deploying a tailhook that will catch a wire on the ship and bring it to a quick stop, a move that until now it has only performed on land. The X-47B can also execute a touch-and-go maneuver, in case a landing has to be called off at the last second. It completed nine such maneuvers in May, when it also took off from an aircraft carrier for the first time.

The X-47B is an experimental drone, and while it will never be operational it will be used as a model for future development of unmanned aircrafts that will join traditional airplane fleets. These carrier-based drones could be operational by 2020, according to Rear Adm. Mat Winter, the Navy's program executive officer for unmanned aviation and strike weapons. Four companies are expected to compete for the contract, which will be awarded in 2014.

Compared to the Predator, the X-47B is much bigger and has three times the range. While the Predator is remotely piloted, the X-47B requires no human intervention and relies only on computer programming.  The aircraft relies on precision GPS navigation, a high-integrity network connection and advanced flight control software to guide itself. 

"Today X-47B is ready," said Capt. Jaime Engdahl, program manager for the Navy’s unmanned combat air system. “It has taken several years of software development, thousands of simulated landings in high-fidelity labs and many hours of flight test in the Patuxent River landing pattern to prove this aircraft is up for the challenge," he added.

The X-47B can reach an altitude of more than 40,000 feet and has a range of more than 2,100 nautical miles. The navy plans to show the drone can be refueled in flight, which would give it even greater range. The X-47B was developed by Northrop Grumman under a $1.4 billion contract in 2007.

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