X-47B unmanned aircraft completes first major phase of flight-testing


June 14, 2012

The second Northrop Grumman-built X-47B unmanned aircraft lifts off for one of its final flights during the air worthiness test phase at EAFB

The second Northrop Grumman-built X-47B unmanned aircraft lifts off for one of its final flights during the air worthiness test phase at EAFB

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The Northrop Grumman-built X-47B has passed the latest checkpoint on its flight path towards becoming the first carrier-based, tailless, fighter-sized, unmanned aircraft in the U.S. Navy’s arsenal with the successful conclusion of the first major phase of flight testing at Edwards Air Force Base (EAFB) in California.

The airworthiness test phase, which kicked off with the maiden flight on February 4, 2011, saw two X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System (UCAS) demonstrators conduct 23 flights in which the aircraft reached altitudes in excess of 15,000 feet and demonstrated multiple maneuvers required for carrier operations. These included the first flight in cruise mode, extending and retracting a tail hook, completing an aviation-first autonomous “touch-and-go” landing, and landings at a high sink rate and in heavy weight configuration.

Northrop Grumman says the flight tests proved the aircraft’s ability to perform properly at all speeds, weights and altitudes associated with the Navy’s Unmanned Combat Air System Carrier Demonstration (UCAS-D) program.

"The X-47B flight test program at Edwards will be remembered as a very successful collaboration among the Navy, Northrop Grumman and the U.S. Air Force Flight Test Center," said Carl Johnson, vice president and Navy UCAS Enterprise program manager for Northrop Grumman's Aerospace Systems sector. "The X-47B flight test program at Edwards demonstrated convincingly the maturity, durability and performance of this revolutionary new unmanned system.”

Following the completion of the airworthiness flight tests at EAFB on May 15, the second X-47B has been transported cross-country to Naval Air Station Patuxent River in Maryland. It joins the first X-47B that was moved there in December 2011 and is currently undergoing electromagnetic interference testing to ensure it is compatible with the electromagnetic signal environment experienced on an aircraft carrier.

Northrop Grumman is currently finalizing the software required for the carrier suitability testing of the aircraft that will begin in the coming months. This will include catapult launches, arrested landings and wireless remote deck handling of the aircraft.

Tests planned for 2013 will involve the demonstration of launch, recovery, bolter and wave-off performance, while autonomous air refueling demonstrations are planned for 2014.

Source: Northrop Grumman

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Darren Quick Darren's love of technology started in primary school with a Nintendo Game & Watch Donkey Kong (still functioning) and a Commodore VIC 20 computer (not still functioning). In high school he upgraded to a 286 PC, and he's been following Moore's law ever since. This love of technology continued through a number of university courses and crappy jobs until 2008, when his interests found a home at Gizmag. All articles by Darren Quick

These babies won't need landing gear. Landing gear is for manned aircraft. Without pilots, landing gear is just a stupid idea whose time is absolutely gone.

Ross Nicholson

Ross C. Nicholson, so how are you supposed to land without landing gear?

Denis Klanac

I'm thinking disposable; not for re-use. Eliminate all that extra weight...maybe make them out of some high-tech paper mache'.


Ross C. Nicholson, Denis Klanac - and even more, how is it supposed to take off without gears?

Oleg Melnic

Taking off without gear is fine, use a detachable cart....

Landing without gear however is likely to end in a very broken plane....

Its fine for Light UAV's to be caught in nets and belly land, but for a heavy(er) generation, not such a good idea. THat weight you just lost with the gear gone, now needs o be replaced with the thicker/tronger belly skin, and more robust airframe allowing net catching... have a few looks at the videos of UAV's being caught in nets and say that it isn't a bit violent.. Not good for a lightweight air frame, and delicate control surfaces.. Sure Langing gear is so yesteryear, but untill next year it can't be completely replaced... Oh yeh, those high sink rate landings, how are we supposed to absorb that energy, Crumple zones??


Humans do not respond well to very rapid acceleration and de-acceleration hence the complicated system of floating runways (aircraft carriers) came about. Without human fragility a consideration, even heavy aircraft can be catapulted and utilise arresting gear. Landing gear actually adds complication to the design parameters of such deck systems.

There is a tendency for old paradigms to influence the design mandate and deployment of new technologies. Think manual typewriters and computers, think horse drawn carriages and modern cars. How would these modern technologies manifest if they were conceived off absolutely afresh?

Autonomous drones will soon out perform manned aircraft in every aspect with the exception of one: they cannot give, with total reliability, a human pilot the instant most informed decision at the critical moment of whether to kill or stand-down.

David Tobin

I don't know whether I am ready to have an unmanned aircraft carry live ordnance. I just like the fact that currently there is some highly trained direct human interaction before the trigger is pulled. I just wonder also, as time passes and these unmanned vehicles become more prevalent, when the cost of war no longer is human life and just hardware will we be going to war more often? But you still have to admire the technology!


Who is to say at this early stage of development that any short comings that drones have won't be eliminated in a few years? To look and see the advances from the Wright brothers in 1903 in the following 10 to 30 years,has never been equaled.


David Tobin makes an excellent point about the UAV's ability to accelerate and decelerate instantly. It DOES make the carrier obsolete if you can just shoot these little UAVs out of a tube or something. It worked for TIE

And Squiddy, the reasons you state are actually the argument for - not against - UAV's. There are many more people involved in a UAV mission. You'd agree the chance of a mistake is much less when there are 8 people in an air-conditioned office at the controls instead of a terrified single pilot. And I'm a civilian pilot, by the way.

Todd Dunning

Humans should not be removed from the decision making, only removed from harm's way. Even a UCAV flying autonomously should have a living person viewing the mission with a big red ABORT button handy.

Cecil Hutchins

The X45B weighs in at just over 22 tons. I would prefer for it to have landing gear. Thank you.

Sonya Jones

re; Ross C. Nicholson

Disposable is expensive.


@ Ross C. Nicholson

Breaking rockets and net catching ? (i.e.



Hate to break it to you, but unmanned Predators have been using live ordnance for over ten years.


This UAV is designed to integrate into today's carrier ops, hence it takes off and lands like a conventional aircraft. besides, can you imagine the cost of complexity of a recovery system designed to safely recover a 22 tonne UAV going at over 180knots? The only system designed so far to capture that type of load is the conventional arestor system - wheels are a nesessity. Also, as can be seen on the photos in this article, it won't just be carriers that this airframe will operate from - again you need wheels to recever the aircraft and get it off the runway.

Marc 1

@ MD.

Just a thought, in the 1930's biplanes were carried by airships, they landed by grapple arm mounted on the airship so needed no undercarriage.

So our only real problem is getting the drone to 20 - 35 knots, today we have thrust vectoring engines or we can deliver a 300 knot airflow from the ship to the landing area which would allow the drone to match the ship speed so it can be grappled.

i.e. Drone stall speed 225knots, ship speed = 25 knots so drone speed in relation to ship = 200 knots - so to stop the drone in the landing area we apply a 300 knot airflow and the drone must increase its speed to 325 knots to be grappled.

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