by DAVID AXE
The U.S. Navy’s X-47B jet-powered drone prototype touched down on the deck of the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush for the first time on Friday — continuing an historic series of accomplishments begun on May 14, when the 62-foot-wingspan Unmanned Aerial Vehicle launched for the first time from the carrier’s deck, landing at the nearby Patuxent River air station in Maryland.
Friday’s touch-and-go, in which the drone briefly landed on the carrier deck without catching the arresting wire and quickly returned to flight, is a prelude to a full arrested landing slated for the coming two months. “That is the most technically demanding and significant portion,” says Capt. Jaime Engdahl, program manager for the Unmanned Combat Air System Demonstration program.
The X-47B, which is expected to lead to a production-model armed drone for Navy carriers via a follow-on program, is pushing the envelope for unmanned systems. “The difference between this and other autonomous vehicles is the carrier environment,” says Carl Johnson, a vice president at Northrop Grumman, which makes the X-47B and is competing for the production program.
“This is a new series of challenges in that the landing location and catapult location for the carrier environment cannot be predefined,” Johnson adds. “The starting point of flight and the end point of flight move, so that is a new development in terms of unmanned systems.”
Programming a drone to adjust it navigation to accommodate moving launch and landing locations is “a big problem to solve,” Johnson says. The X-47B is highly autonomous, following pre-programmed mission parameters, albeit with a human controller monitoring all aspects of the flight, able to take direct control when needed.
The software Northrop Grumman is writing for the new drone is arguably the most important development for the Navy, which is planning on adding scores of unmanned systems in coming years.