Unmanned stealth jet could transform naval aviation

Tailless, stealth UAV, could be operating off US Navy carriers by 2020.

Northrop Grumman

Construction of the X-47B unmanned, tailless, stealth jet is ahead of schedule, with the first flight scheduled for November 2009, reports defense contractor Northrop Grumman.(pdf)

The X-47B is expected to be the first tailless UAV jet to operate off an aircraft carrier, which includes catapult launches and arrested landings; to do that it will also need to be capable of maneuvering precisely and autonomous around the flight deck. But none of that is expected to happen until sea trials in 2011.

The plane, developed under the Unmanned Combat Air System Carrier Demonstration (UCAS-D) program, has the "potential to transform naval aviation", according advocates.

The Navy envisions it as a force multiplier to be deployed for everything from long range precision bombing runs to close air support.

Classed roughly as "strike fighter-sized" jet capable of high, "subsonic" speed, it boasts a 4,500 pound pay load, and a 40,000 foot operational ceiling. The project has had to overcome a number of marine environment specific challenges including dealing with the corrosive salt-water environment and the problem of directing what is essentially a remote-control plane within a carrier's high electromagnetic interference bubble.

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