The Navy recently took a big step closer to getting the X-47B robot stealth plane flying off aircraft carriers when it landed a Hornet fighter jet on the USS Eisenhower using unmanned systems.
The takeoff and landing in the Atlantic of the F/A-18D Hornet on July 2 used systems developed under the Unmanned Combat Air System Carrier Demonstration (UCAS-D) program. The X-47B, made by Northrop Grumman, is designed to use carriers as its base.
Carrier landings are one of the trickiest feats in aviation. While two airmen were aboard the Hornet, the avionics and software were the same as those that will be used in the X-47B.
The bat-winged stealth plane had its maiden flight in February and is designed to fly along pre-programmed paths and at "high subsonic" top speed, far faster than the Predator and Reaper drones. It will also have a much greater weapons payload of 4,500 pounds.
"What we saw here today is cutting-edge technology for integrating digital control of autonomous carrier aircraft operations, and most importantly, the capability to automatically land an unmanned air system aboard an aircraft carrier," the Navy quoted Capt. Jaime Engdahl, a UCAS program manager, as saying.
"Successfully landing and launching a surrogate aircraft allows us to look forward to demonstrating that a tailless, strike-fighter-sized unmanned system can operate safely in the carrier environment."
Carrier-based drones, with their greater combat range than manned aircraft, could significantly alter how the Navy fights wars. The X-47B is slated to enter carrier trials in 2013.