This may look like your average, everyday X-47B drone landing, but the feat in the video above is actually evidence of something far more impressive. Over the weekend, this automated flying beast successfully performed a simulated aircraft carrier landing, which means that the US Navy could actually deploy and operate drones from the sea soon.
The ultimate goal is to have the semi-autonomous, long-windedly-named Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike drone complete these landings with a single mouse click. But when actual living, breathing Top Gun pilots want to touch down on one of the Navy's carriers, they're embarking on one of the most difficult maneuvers possible: landing on a moving target while catching hold of something called an MK-7 arresting gear, which is essentially a cable that tethers the aircraft and keeps it (and you) from lurching headlong to a dark and watery grave.
So it's hard enough to successfully catch the cable when you're in the front seat much less when you're controlling the plane from a remote location. Of course, catching the cable on a stationary, grounded simulation of an aircraft carrier's landing bed and actually safely touching down at sea are still two very different feats. And we're still someways off from the confidence needed to attempt a landing on the unpredictably turbulent, stormy seas.
According to Capt Jaime Engdahi, the X-47B's program manager:
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. Shore-based arrested landing testing here at NAS [Naval Air Station] Patuxent River is our final check that the X-47B can meet that objective.
Later this month, we'll see if the X-47B can actually take the US Navy's drone program into unprecedented, nearly undreamed-of territory by other nations. Today's statement did exercise some hesitation, though, emphasising that the X-47B will be "catapulting from the carrier deck and potentially completing landings on board." Key word, of course, being "potentially". But with this beautifully successful landing on dry land, they at least have plenty to be hopeful about. [Wired]