by David Axe.
Sometime today the U.S. Navy will launch a modern, jet-powered, armed drone from the first time from an aircraft carrier, the USS George H.W. Bush. The X-47B Unmanned Aerial Vehicle, built by Northrop Grumman, is a possible precursor to a new class of naval drones that could transform American sea and air power.
Below, a primer on the robot, its origins and the implications of its first at-sea takeoff.
The X-47B has its origins in a competitive, Air Force-Navy-sponsored fly-off between an older version of the Northrop drone and Boeing’s X-45. The Boeing model featured profound new robotic capabilities but faltered when the Air Force pulled out of the competition.
The X-47 survived the now-defunct, bi-service fly-off against the X-45 — but as a strictly Navy program aimed at demonstrating carrier-drone compatibility. Northrop poured new technologies into the enlarged X-47B version, including high degrees of autonomy and some ability to evade enemy radars.
One of the biggest challenges was mixing the X-47B with manned planes and helicopters on a crowded carrier deck. MIT professor Missy Cummings developed a new control system that allows the drone to seamlessly navigate the deck.
As the X-47B neared its critical first carrier launch in May 2013, three other companies unveiled new drone prototypes meant to compete for the expected, multibillion-dollar, follow-on production program — including an enlarged version of the Boeing X-45!
- David Axe, Will the Navy’s New Killer Drones Hunt Terrorists or Fight China?, Wired, Danger Room, 15.05.2013.
- David Axe, Is This China’s First Killer Drone?, Wired, Danger Room, 10.05.2013.