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Navy Makes History With Unmanned Carrier Launch

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The U.S. Navy ushered in a new era in aviation with Tuesday’s launch of the first autonomous jet from an aircraft carrier.

The angular X-47B flew from deck of USS George H.W. Bush (CVN-77) launched from the same steam catapult that’s pushed manned fighters into the sky for decades — but without a cockpit or a pilot. 

“Today we saw a small, but significant pixel in the future picture of our Navy as we begin integration of unmanned systems into arguably the most complex warfighting environment that exists today: the flight deck of a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier,” said Vice Adm. David Buss, commander, Naval Air Forces, the Navy’s “Air Boss”.

The experimental jet is part of the Navy’s experimental Unmanned Combat Air System Aircraft Carrier Demonstration (UCAS-D). The program set out to prove that an autonomous aircraft could operate from the decks of the service’s aircraft carriers.

“This is a first,” said Capt. Jaime Engdahl, Navy UCAS program manager told reporters on a May 8 conference call.
“It’s a historic moment as we introduce the X-47B into the harsh environment of a carrier at sea.”

The X-47B is a generational leap forward in technology and autonomy from the ubiquitous Predator and Reaper unmanned aerial vehicles flying in Afghanistan.

Predator and Reaper UAVs rely on an operator to directly control the aircraft at all times. The flight trained pilots input course changes at a control station that more closely resembles the cockpit of an aircraft.

The Navy and contractor Northrop Grumman have created a control system that minimizes the oversight of the operator and instead relies more on internal software onboard the aircraft to fly the plane.

“It is an autonomous vehicle,” Engdahl said.
“It will be under direct control by the mission operator but there’s no stick or throttle or break pedal inside the mission operator station… You have a man in the loop who can direct the airplane and that can tell it what to do but the execution is on the air vehicle.”

The same idea of autonomy extends to the takeoff and eventual carrier landing of the X-47B.

Earlier in May, the X-47B successfully landed at a Navy test facility at Patuxent River, Md. on a runway that simulates a carrier landing.

Using its onboard autonomous systems, the X-47B was able to catch its tail hook on a wire that slowed the aircraft to a stop in a matter of seconds.

“Landing an unmanned aircraft on an aircraft carrier will be the greatest singular accomplishment for the UCAS demonstration and will serve as the culmination of over a decade of Navy unmanned carrier integration work”, Engdahl sad in a May 6 statement from Naval Air Systems Command.

The landing X-47B on a carrier is last most difficult step and could come as early as the end of the month.

If UCAS-D is a success, it will mark the next step in creating a new breed of unmanned carrier aircraft that can operate without the limitations of manned fighters and hold the promise of doubling the deadly range of an aircraft carrier.

By 2020 the Navy wants to field the Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike System (UCLASS). UCLASS plans to provide longer loiter times for surveillance missions and the ability to launch weapons.