Naval aviation history was made today, as an autonomous unmanned aircraft took off from a US Navy nuclear aircraft carrier in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Virginia. The X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System demonstrator (UCAS-D) took to the air from the USS George H.W. Bush (CVN 77) and is part of a program to develop carrier-based unmanned combat aircraft capable of carrying out missions according to pre-programmed instructions rather than being under constant control by a ground-based pilot.

Launched from the Nimitz Class carrier at 11:18 AM (15:18 GMT) by steam catapult like an operational carrier-based aircraft, the X-47B was controlled by a mission operator aboard the Bush, but also operated autonomously for parts of the test. The drone executed several low-altitude carrier approaches to demonstrate its ability to operate in a carrier environment, then flew across Chesapeake Bay and landed at the Naval Air Station Patuxent River in Maryland, where it has spent the last year conducting shore-based tests.

USS George H.W. Bush (CVN 77) (Photo: US Navy)

During the 65-minute test, the aircraft navigated in the carrier airspace, and control was successfully transferred from the carrier-based mission operator to a shore-based operator.

“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 Admiral David Buss, commander, Naval Air Forces, the Navy's “Air Boss."

The X-47B used today was one of two built by Northrop Grumman to demonstrate autonomous carrier operations, including launch, recovery and operations within 50 nautical miles (57.5 mi/92.6 km) of a carrier. One of the two test drones is designed to carry out in-flight refueling tests as well. The intention is that the technology developed for the X-47B will one day lead to autonomous unmanned carrier-based aircraft for surveillance, reconnaissance, and combat duty.

Further takeoff tests will be conducted over the coming weeks, and the X-47B will attempt its first true carrier landing at sea this summer.

Source: US Navy