X-47B first flight: the era of the autonomous unmanned combat plane approaches


February 8, 2011

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No matter how I look at this, it still seems like science fiction – a combat aircraft without a pilot that is capable of flying itself, making its own decisions, recognizing and neutralizing threats, and taking off and landing on an aircraft carrier. Last Friday (Feb 4), the Northrop Grumman-built U.S. Navy X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System Demonstration (UCAS-D) aircraft successfully completed its historic first flight at Edwards Air Force Base in California. The era of the unmanned combat plane is fast approaching.

Conducted by a U.S. Navy/Northrop Grumman test team, the flight took off at 2:09 p.m. PST and lasted 29 minutes. This event marks a critical step in the program, moving the team forward to meet the demonstration objectives of a tailless fighter-sized unmanned aircraft to safely take off from and land on the deck of a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier.

"First flight represents the compilation of numerous tests to validate the airworthiness of the aircraft, and the robustness and reliability of the software that allows it to operate as an autonomous system and eventually have the ability to take-off and land aboard an aircraft carrier," said Capt. Jaime Engdahl, the Navy's UCAS-D program manager.

"Designing a tailless, fighter-sized unmanned aircraft from a clean sheet is no small feat," said Janis Pamiljans, vice president and UCAS-D program manager for Northrop Grumman's Aerospace Systems sector. "Commitment, collaboration and uncompromising technical excellence among the Navy, Northrop Grumman and the UCAS-D team industry partners made today's flight a reality. We are indeed honored to have given wings to the Navy's vision for exploring unmanned carrier aviation."

Taking off under hazy skies, the X-47B climbed to an altitude of 5,000 feet, flew several racetrack-type patterns, and landed safely at 2:38 p.m. PST. The flight provided test data to verify and validate system software for guidance and navigation, and the aerodynamic control of the tailless design.

As with all test programs, first flight represents the culmination, verification and certification of pre-flight system data collected and analyzed by both the Navy and Northrop Grumman. Airframe proof load tests, propulsion system accelerated mission tests, software maturity and reliability simulations, full system taxi tests, and numerous other system test activities were all completed and certified prior to first flight.

The aircraft will remain at Edwards AFB for flight envelope expansion before transitioning to Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Maryland, later this year. There, the system will undergo additional tests to validate its readiness to begin testing in the maritime and carrier environment. The UCAS-D program is preparing the X-47B for carrier trials in 2013.

The Navy awarded the UCAS-D prime contract to Northrop Grumman in August 2007. The six-year contract calls for the development of two X-47B fighter-sized aircraft. The program will demonstrate the first-ever carrier launches and recoveries by an autonomous, unmanned aircraft with a low-observable-relevant platform. Autonomous aerial refueling will also be performed after carrier integration and at-sea trials.


I think it needs a little red light in front that scans back and forth...


I want one for our neighbourhood watch committee. It\'ll keep the yobs off the grass and climbing in to our gardens to get the ball back. I\'ve lost 3 gnomes this year!

Matthew Hare

Wouldn\'t it be fun to fly one of these? Oops, wait a sec.


Of all the problems in the world that need solving, finding new and exciting high tech ways to kill people isn\'t one of them.

Dave Myers

Another one of the first steps toward a \"Terminator\" future.


I don\'t like this. Who hasn\'t seen the Terminator movies? The idea of software having the ability to deploy arms with no human interaction is a scary concept.

Arthur Ashmann

This is probably one of the aircraft that people think are UFO\'s and continue to report to reporting centers.........

Richie Suraci

Haven\'t we learned NOTHING from the Terminator movies?


Hmmm , sounds just like the plot to a recent movie. Add some artificial intelligence and the nickname \"Tinman\" and you are there. Then the thing gets self aware and determines on its own that the humans area threat to the planet so the machines try to exterminate us . Oh , wait , that\'s the plot to another SCi-Fi movie. It could really happen someday though if we keep building things like this.

Jim Andrews

For you guys terrified of this, here\'s a suggestion:

Go to your bed Crawl underneath and cry Come out when Granny has fresh cookies for you Go post a little on Kos or HuffPo Todd Dunning

War without risk just CAN\'T be good! Especially in the hands of Americans (among others).


Frightened, worried left-wingers - if you researched this platform you would understand the reasons behind why it was created. You would be able to sleep better at night without holding your blankie so tight.

You might have heard that there are bad people in the world who do bad things, and we have a military to make the world a safer place. Other countries do too.

The purpose of the military is not to scare liberals with loud sounds or goal-based determination. It is to deter bad people from harming innocent people.

A UAV platform is not just safer for pilots who will not be shot down. It is much safer for civilians in harm\'s way. Because a whole team of people operate the UAV they are able to make sounder command and control decisions than one human pilot worried about his/her safety. For example, a UAV flight team can see that a civilian is close to a Taliban force that is about to be attacked, and delay an engagement.

However, for liberals this kind of explanation falls on deaf ears. They hate the idea of those around them having power, or that the US should ever win anything. It makes their world of dancing hearts and unicorns seem that much more ridiculous.

Todd Dunning

Instead of the quote above regarding \"frightened left-wingers\" let\'s just say people with plain old common-sense! These things are just \"boys toys\" used by very dangerous people. Just think of the good things that could be done with all the money being spent on ways of killing more people. Here\'s another quote \" turn your swords into ploughshares\" a very old saying but a very sensible one regardless of what spiritual direction you follow.


todd dunning

i read somewhere that UAVs currently in service have more civilian kills than manned fighter planes. Also group decision making does not neccessarily mean less mistakes. And lot of events in history happened not just by a single person but by a group of people with the same goal and principle. Remember the Nazi? Who\'s not to say that US military officers will not make mistakes? And who will blame them when they accidently kill civillians in some distant country? Pilots will be sitting in some underground military base looking through a bunch of monitors, humans on the screen will probably appear as white humanoid forms through thermal heat cameras, pressing a button will fire a missile that will kill the people on screen. Will they feel any sort of guilt? Probably not. Because those pilots will have been trained by simulators( a.k.a video games) that trains them to be indifferent. Why do people fear cyberdine and terminators? Isn\'t it because robots have no feelings, no responsibility, working only for personal(Well, sort of..) gain?

Shouldn\'t people be more afraid by a government which spends billions of dollars to kill the soldiers humanity?

PS. The US is the good guy? Really? Can you really define bad and good people? Do you really know all the things the US have done in the past?

bio-power jeff

bio-power jeff and others, I personally define \"good guys\" as any country in the world that stands up to the ones trying to rob people of human rights. Even the prisoners of Guantanimo Bay are having their rights cared for by the present U.S. administration--regardless of whether they\'ve murdered babies--and the U.S. has fought since its Civil War to keep the world population out of slavery, even despite its many mistakes. Can you think of any country the U.S. has brought into slavery? The governments of China, North Korea, Iran, and others would then be classified as \"bad guys\" because they have made it a goal to forcibly rob as many people of their human rights as possible.

I am against armed conflict if it can be helped and despise how carelessly today\'s conflicts have been handled, but the fact is that UAVs are cheaper for \"bad guys\" to make than manned fighters and with good, robust programming, an autonomous UAV will outperform both manned fighters and human-controlled UAVs. The success or failure of human-controlled aircraft depends on the skill of the \"pilot\", and humans are not as skilled at processing masses of data at once and making extremely detailed movements like computers and robotics can. If the countries that are trying to protect human rights bury their collective head in the sand and fail to keep up with the \"bad guy\" enemies of human rights...I believe it would be highly unwise. I say we carefully proceed to develop this technology and make sure human rights are protected on our planet.

Brutal McKillins

John Stockwell


Don\'t wonder why other countries hate the US. Read that and know.


Brutal,No offense but your comment about guantanamo(spelling check please..) prisoners rights is kind of funny. Have never heard of REAL prisoners sent to foreign countries to be tortured? Technically prisoners aren\'t tortured on US soil or by united states personals. United States practically owns the United Nations. Do you really think the US doesn\'t order torture, murder, kidnapping, and kill babies? Every country in the world does it, some don\'t even bother to hide it but other \'civilized\' countries apparently try very hard to cover it up. What do you think the CIA, NSA, and other unnamed intelligence agencies do?The US protecting civil rights?I\'m not saying that the US is always the bad guy, or the good guy. Every country in the world only acts to gain it\'s own profit. And sometimes countries won\'t even bother Human rights. This goes to all contries.

bio-power jeff

Amazing technology. I wonder if this fighter will cost us more or less than the manned version. Can it outmaneuver a manned fighter, ie handle more g forces? Maybe it\'s designed for air to ground targets rather than air to air dogfights.


technology now days is growing fast this right here is another step to the future they should make more like this it might save a lot of soldiers life

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