As the role of UAVs in the US military expands, the demands placed on these unmanned platforms grow as well. One of the most important new abilities these autonomous flyers must have is the ability to land atop a thin strip of tarmac rolling on the high seas. And that's just what the new Northrop Grumman X-47B will do.
The X-47B is a tailless, demonstrator UAV developed by Northrop Grumman as part of the Navy's Unmanned Combat Air System Carrier Demonstration (UCAS-D) program though the X-47 project began as part of DARPA's J-UCAS initiative. The UCAS-D program aims to further remove humans, and their physiological shortcomings — like the need to sleep — from the low level drudgery of UAV missions. "It's smart enough for you to put really interesting contingencies" in the X-47B's way, Captain Jaime Engdahl, the Navy's program manager for its flying drones, told Danger Room. "It has the smarts to react to that condition."
The X-47B is one of a pair of identical drones under $US813 million worth of development since 2007. By next year, the drones are expected to begin live carrier performance testing, and if successful, undertake autonomous mid-air refueling testing in 2014 before entering active service by 2019 (barring any delays).
The UAV is roughly the size of a modern fighter jet, measuring 11.5m long with a 19m wingspan and a maximum takeoff weight of 20,000kg. It's powered by a Pratt & Whitney F100-220U turbofan jet engine that provides enough thrust for a 0.45 mach cruising speed and 2100km operational range. It also features enough bomb bay storage for 4500 pounds of ordnance, but being just a demonstrator, they remain empty.
The one place the X-47B won't do most of its own thinking is while on the flight deck. When the UAV is still prepping for takeoff, it is controlled by a member of the flight crew using the remote control pictured left. It utilises an RF link to steer with the nose wheel and also control the engines, brakes and tail hook.
In addition to proving its ability to be loaded onto the catapult system — the deck operator would manoeuvre UAV into the launcher, then rev the engines to generate wire tension before handing control to the mission operator — the X-47 will also have to show that it can successfully and routinely catch the tow-wire when landing. It should also be able to be waived-off, that is, abort an incoming landing. It will also have to be able to bolt — or, touch down then immediately accelerate off the deck because the tow cable didn't catch.
The X-47B pair made a maiden voyage February of last year, climbing to 15,000 feet above Chesapeake Bay during a 35-minute flight, while demonstrating these aircraft carrier maneuvers. "This flight of the X-47B is the first time an autonomous, carrier-capable unmanned system has flown at Pax River," said Carl Johnson, VP and Navy UCAS program manager for Northrop Grumman. "It's also a major milestone for the program as the Navy/Northrop Grumman team prepares the aircraft to enter carrier suitability testing this fall, the last major phase of testing before we begin carrier trials in 2013."