The X-47B prototype on Tuesday flew off an aircraft carrier and into the history books.
Today's achievement, the first-ever catapult launch of an unmanned aircraft from the flight deck of a carrier, promises to open up a new chapter in the annals of naval aviation.
The X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System demonstrator launched from the deck of the USS George H.W. Bush at 11:18 a.m. ET off the coast of Virginia. It executed several planned low approaches to the carrier -- a carrier landing will take place at a later time -- and then flew across Chesapeake Bay to land at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Md., after an approximately 65-minute flight.
Although "combat" is part of the aircraft's full designation, the X-47B is not intended to fly in harm's way. Rather, its purpose is to prove a point: that unmanned aircraft can share the crowded, hectic flight deck of a carrier with traditional piloted planes, and that they can be integrated into naval flight operations, period.
"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 of Naval Air Forces, in a statement.
Over the better part of the last decade, the Navy has spent $1.8 billion on the X-47B prototype, according to the Wall Street Journal.
The Navy has an inventory of two of the X-47B aircraft, built by Northrop Grumman. The tailless, jet-powered machine has a wingspan of 62 feet, which makes it nearly twice as wide as it is long, and 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.
Although the X-47B has the smarts to fly autonomously, Tuesday's flight was done under the control of human operators, the first one driving the aircraft from the carrier before handing over to one at the Patuxent River air station who brought the X-47B in for a landing.
The X-47B first traveled out into the Atlantic Ocean for sea trials aboard the USS Harry S. Truman at the end of 2012, shortly after having shown it could handle a catapult launch in a land-based test.
Earlier this month, it made an arrested landing in a test run on a landing strip at Patuxent River. In these landings, a tail hook on the aircraft grabs cables to halt itself in a dramatically abrupt fashion, necessary in the small space of a carrier flight deck.
The next goals for the X-47B over the coming weeks, the Navy said, will be to fly multiple approaches to the carrier and eventually to make an arrested landing on a carrier flight deck at sea. The final carrier landing will come later in the summer.
After that, sometime in fiscal 2014, the Navy intends to show off the X-47B's skills at autonomous aerial refueling -- if budget cuts don't ground those hopes.
And for the historical record, here's a look at the first U.S. aircraft carrier, the USS Langley -- and early biplane takeoffs from a carrier: