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X-47B makes first touch-and-go landings on carrier


May 20, 2013

X-47B leaving the flight deck after a touch-and-go landing (Image: US Navy by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Tony D. Curtis)

X-47B leaving the flight deck after a touch-and-go landing (Image: US Navy by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Tony D. Curtis)

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On Friday May 17, the US Navy's X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System Demonstrator took another historic step as it conducted its first touch-and-go landings on the nuclear aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush off the coast of Virginia. This maneuver is a critical achievement in the Navy’s program to develop an autonomous, unmanned, jet-powered combat aircraft capable for operating from a carrier.

A touch-and-go landing (also known as “circuits and bumps”) is where an aircraft touches its wheels to a runway or flight deck, but does not come to a full stop. Instead, it throttles up and takes off again. It’s a common training maneuver and it allows the X-47B to repeatedly demonstrate its ship-relative navigation and ability to make precision touchdowns on the deck of a carrier at sea.

"When we operate in a very dynamic and harsh carrier environment, we need networks and communication links that have high integrity and reliability to ensure mission success and provide precise navigation and placement of an unmanned vehicle," said Captain Jaime Engdahl, program manager for Unmanned Combat Air Systems program office. "Today, we have demonstrated this with the X-47B, and we will continue to demonstrate consistent, reliable, repeatable touchdown locations on a moving carrier flight deck."

The X-47B used was one of two built by Northrop Grumman to demonstrate autonomous carrier operations, including launch, recovery and operations within 50 nautical miles (57.5 miles/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.

The May 17 operation follows closely on the X-47B’s successful catapult launch from the USS George H.W. Bush on May 14. After completing the current round of carrier tests, the X-47B will return to Naval Air Station Patuxent River to conduct shore-based capture landings before trying its first true carrier landing later this year.

The video below shows the X-47B making a touch-and-go landing.

Source: US Navy

About the Author
David Szondy David Szondy is a freelance writer based in Monroe, Washington. An award-winning playwright, he has contributed to Charged and iQ magazine and is the author of the website Tales of Future Past. All articles by David Szondy

they picked a real calm day to try this I see

Jay Finke
Other drones have proven they can land on flight decks in awful weather better than the best human pilots. You can bet that the ship that launches the planes will also be a drone as well in the very near future. Drone war ships are far easier to create than drone airships. Jim Sadler

re; Jim Sadler

Probably not. Ships and planes require an enormous amount of constant maintenance.


re; Jay Finke

This is a test program. The competent always start with the easy and work their way up to the difficult.


Quietly confident she will complete her landing test, then succeed in bad weather for the same.

Is the system fully autonomous and how does it assess its approach in the absence of GPS?

Unassisted, will the system be capable of identifying a bad landing condition? e.g. - if another aircraft is about to land, or if the carrier changes orientation.


re; Nairda

No mater how autonomous the drone is it will still respond to its own air traffic control. Without GPS it will still have inertial navigation, terrain matching navigation, and known radio source navigation. Its sensors are more than capable to tell it what direction the carrier is going.


re; Nairda part 2

I forgot to mention that collision avoidance is part of the basic package in autonomously operating vehicles.


Hi Slowburn,

Just wish to make the distinction there between machine vision and reasoning on one side, as opposed to a complete reliance on Traffic control, GPS, and known radio source navigation.

Worst case: Low on fuel on return flight, with damaged comms link to traffic control, and possible damage to fuselage from taking hits, the UCAV will have to make a landing decision.

Will the engineers program the easy option to dump it into the ocean within reach of carrier, or go the extra step to provide the UCAV the tools to asses and attempt an emergency landing.


re; Nairda

The reason they try to recover maned aircraft with that sort of damage/malfunction is because it is believed that it is safer for the crew to try to land than to bail out. A out of communication drone will be ditched.


They have had drone planes for years but I do not see a way to have a drone ship big enough to land a plane on. It is far easier to fly a drone plane than control a ship due to tide, current, winds which would make docking a big ship a nightmare if the wind was blowing. I know I have operated 1050 ft. long barge tows and the wind on empty barges can be a hell of a problem. I just do not see how it could be docked. I do not think I could do it despite having years of experience unless I was on the vessel to see how the wind, tide, current and all other factors affected docking. Now it could maintain a position or probably make it in open sea but not in a River or docking. Now maybe a fifty boat or either something that never has to come into port. However never seen a ship yet that did not need major maintenance that can only be done while docked or on drydock at times. Heck even the Navy with all its fancy GPS, Radars and Chart plotters had a manned ship run aground on a coral reef in the Philippines.

James Turner
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