AN EXPERIMENTAL unmanned drone aircraft the same size as a manned fighter aircraft has landed successfully on the deck of a US navy aircraft carrier in a first for such a device.
The X-47B experimental aircraft performed the landing yesterday on the deck of the USS George HW Bush off the coast of Virginia.
Landing on the deck of a ship that is moving, while navigating through turbulent air behind an aircraft carrier is seen as one of the most difficult tasks naval aviators have to master.
The successful test – using a tailhook to catch a wire aboard the ship and bring it to a quick stop – means the US navy can move forward with its plans to develop another unmanned aircraft. The drone will join the fleet alongside traditional aircraft to provide around-the-clock surveillance while also possessing a strike capability.
Just like a traditional aircraft, if the landing has to be called off for any reason at the last second, the X-47B can perform a touch-and-go manoeuvre. It performed nine such manoeuvres in May, when it also took off from an aircraft carrier for the first time.
“We have certainly come a long way in the 102 years since Eugene Ely made the first arrested landing aboard an aircraft carrier. Naval aviators have always been at the forefront of operational and tactical innovation, and today was no exception,” said secretary of the navy Ray Mabus yesterday.
“People make unmanned aviation possible and it is people who will provide the fresh thinking and new ideas so crucial to successes like the X-47B programme and the unmanned aircraft of the future.”
The X-47B will never be put into operational use, but it will help the US develop future carrier-based drones. Those drones could begin operating by 2020, according to Rear Admiral Mat Winter, the US navy’s executive officer for unmanned aviation and strike weapons.
Four companies are expected to compete for a contract to design the unmanned aircraft of the future, which will be awarded in 2014.
The move to expand the capabilities of US drones comes amid growing criticism of America’s use of Predator and Reaper drones to gather intelligence and carry out missile attacks in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen.
Critics in the US and abroad say that drone strikes cause widespread civilian deaths and are conducted with inadequate oversight. Defence analysts say drones are the future of warfare.
The X-47B is far bigger than the Predator, has three times the range and can be programmed to carry out missions with no human intervention, the Navy said.
While the X-47B is not a stealth aircraft, it was designed with the low profile of one. That will help in the development of future stealth drones, which would be valuable as the US military changes its focus from the Middle East to the Pacific, where a number of countries possess strong air defence capabilities.
While Predators are typically piloted via remote control by someone in the US, the X-47B uses computer programs to tell it where to fly unless a human operator needs to step in. The US navy said the aircraft relies on GPS navigation, a high-integrity network connection and flight control software to guide itself.