Unmanned X-47B aircraft completes sea trial

The pilotless prototype shows that it can fit into the crowd on an aircraft carrier flight deck and get the job done "in the most hostile electromagnetic environment on Earth."

X-47B
The X-47B on the flight deck of the USS Harry S. Truman in December 2012. Northrop Grumman

We now know that the pilotless X-47B aircraft has its sea legs.

The prototype X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System(PDF) this week completed its first at-sea tests as it gets ready to take off from and land on an aircraft carrier sometime in 2013, a first in naval aviation history.

That eventual flight will be the big moment for the X-47B. But the test phase that just ended is no small potatoes. It's a tricky thing for any aircraft to maneuver around the hectic, cramped, and crowded space of a carrier flight deck. In the test phase that just ended, the prototype plane proved that it will fit in very nicely, according to both the U.S. Navy and X-47B maker Northrop Grumman.

X-47B
The X-47B rides an aircraft carrier elevator. U.S. Navy photo

The X-47B's several weeks of testing aboard the USS Harry S. Truman included being towed by flight deck tractors, taxiing on the flight deck under the direction of a handheld controller, and having its digital engine controls tried out amid the rampant electromagnetic fields on a carrier. It would be bad news indeed if the X-47B clipped another aircraft, or succumbed to interference from the ship's radar systems.

"We proved that the X-47B air system is mature and can perform flawlessly in the most hostile electromagnetic environment on Earth, a Nimitz class Navy aircraft carrier," said Mike Mackey, UCAS-D program director for Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems, in a statement.

The jet-powered X-47B is designed to fly autonomously, in contrast with many drones like the Predator, which are flown remotely by pilots at ground stations. On the deck of the carrier, however, it is driven by a handheld remote control .

With a wingspan of 62 feet, the flying-wing-shaped X-47B is about 17 feet wider than the Navy's F/A-18 Super Hornet. It has a top speed in the "high subsonic" range, a ceiling of 40,000 feet, and a range of about 2,100 nautical miles.

During the testing, the Truman was under way off the Virginia coast and in port at Naval Station Norfolk. While one X-47B was aboard the carrier, the only other X-47B in existence was going through its paces at Naval Air Station Patuxent River in Maryland.

In late November, the X-47B at Pax River made the first-ever catapult take-off by an unmanned aircraft.

As 2013 gets going, the UCAS-D (D is for "demonstrator") will conduct land-based tests of the X-47B's ability to handle arrested landings; that is, the abrupt stops on a carrier as a hook below the landing aircraft catches onto cables stretched across the flight deck. Carrier-based trials of both landings and catapult launches are planned for later in the spring, according to Northrop Grumman.

Tests of autonomous aerial refueling are on the docket for 2014.

But don't go looking for either of the X-47B aircraft to undergo a trial by combat. These are just prototypes; once they've established the proof of concept, the Navy will then have to open up a whole new program to get going on production models.

"We've learned a lot about the environment that we're in and how compatible the aircraft is with a carrier's flight deck, hangar bays and communication systems," said Don Blottenberger, program manager for the N-UCAS Program Office, in a U.S. Navy statement. "There is a lot ahead for our program.... I look at Truman as the beginning of future unmanned integration with the fleet."

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About the author

Jonathan Skillings is managing editor of CNET News, based in the Boston bureau. He's been with CNET since 2000, after a decade in tech journalism at the IDG News Service, PC Week, and an AS/400 magazine. He's also been a soldier and a schoolteacher, and will always be a die-hard fan of jazz, the brassier the better.

 

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