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Carrier-Based X-47B Drone Flies With Manned Aircraft For First Time
By Valerie Insinna

Aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt — The Navy’s carrier-launched X-47B drone and an F-18 Hornet on Aug. 17 took off, flew in pattern together and landed on the deck of an aircraft carrier, marking the first time the unmanned demonstrator has flown cooperatively with a manned aircraft.

(See video of F-18 and X-47B flying in pattern together here)

The demonstrations, although historic, did not go exactly as anticipated. In a phone call with reporters prior to the flight tests, Capt. Beau Duarte, the Navy’s program manager, said the goal was to have only a 90-second pause between launching the Hornet and the X-47B. The aircraft would fly around the ship, execute a couple touch-and-go landings, and then land within 90 seconds of each other.

(See video of touch-and-go landings here)

Before its first catapult launch, the X-47B sat on the deck of the USS Theodore Roosevelt about a half hour after the F-18 took off.

The reason for the delay was that the ship was angled slightly downward, Duarte said.

“Our flight limits for an experimental aircraft are very conservative, so we needed to get the flight deck level,” Duarte said. “Over the next 20 minutes or so, the captain of the ship transferred fuel aft to make the aircraft carrier sit up a little bit [and] moved some equipment in the hangar bay."

After being catapulted into the sky, the X-47B turned downwind and carried out its planned flight pattern with the F-18. It then executed a touch-and-go landing to ensure the software was functioning properly, Duarte said. The first landing and second takeoff were also slightly delayed, with a couple minutes between recoveries and launches.

On its second landing, the X-47B finally met its time objective — it was captured and cleared the landing area in 90 seconds. Duarte stressed that meeting the 90-second goal was not as important as refining the aircraft’s concept of operations.

“The deck handling solution for the X-47 may not be the solution we do for future aircraft,” he said. “We’re just looking at the feasibility of integrating these aircraft. Timing is a good initial vector to see how we’re doing, but it’s not the end-all that we’re looking for.”

While the Air Force and Army fly UAS separately from manned assets, the Navy’s strategy is to team unpiloted and piloted aircraft, said Rear Adm. Mat Winter, program executive officer for unmanned aviation and strike weapons. The X-47B cooperative demonstrations will help establish how sailors and naval aviators can integrate unmanned aircraft with existing capabilities.

The other difference between Navy UAS and the other services’ is that the Navy’s are almost completely autonomous, flying itself using a combination of advanced algorithms and sensors.

"What you saw today was history,” Winter said. “It was history in the making, and it's the next step in our understanding of how technologies come together to the tactical to provide a war fighting capability. It's not  'unmanned over all others,' it's a blending of unmanned and manned capabilities."

The X-47B is paving the way for the Navy’s first operational carrier drone, the Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike. UCLASS, as it is commonly called, will collect intelligence, target enemies and contain a limited strike capability, Winter said.

Four contractors are competing to build UCLASS: General Atomics, Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman, which built the X-47B. The system isn’t scheduled for an early operating capability until about 2020, but the hope is that the X-47B testing will help mature technology and refine the concept of operations for UCLASS.

In actual combat operations, any extra time needed to recover the aircraft is more time when the ship is vulnerable. Manned aircraft can land and clear the landing area within 60 seconds, Duarte said. “So first time out of the bat, achieving 90 seconds, that’s pretty good.”

“I think as we get more opportunities — and we've got four more flight periods over the next couple of days — we will ...see what we get with the time,” he added. “Since this is the first time we've done it, we will see what level of interaction between the two aircraft that we can achieve and we will let that feed our future concept of operations development."

Over the course of the week, the Navy plans to execute a total of about seven catapult launches and arrested landings, as well as 20 touch-go-flights, Duarte said. Journalists watched the first of three test periods Aug. 17. Two more hours of demonstrations are scheduled for Aug. 18.

The testing this week will also include some night deck handling operations, which will assess how well flight deck personnel can taxi an aircraft at night, he said. F-18s will not be involved in those tests.

The X-47B featured a couple new capabilities for this latest bout of testing, Duarte said. In order to perform arrested landings on a carrier, an aircraft must be outfitted with a tail hook, which catches on an arresting wire and decelerates. For these exercises, a new hook actuator and accompanying software were installed on the X-47B, allowing the UAS to automatically retract its hook after landing. The drone also displayed its new automatic wing fold capability after its second arrested landing.

Whether there will be further demonstrations of the X-47B is unknown at this point. After current tests are completed, the Navy will assess the data and decide whether further flights are needed, Winter said.

“Our strategy going forward is to continue to operate X-47 as a system, to mature technologies and discover and explore unmanned carrier aviation where it makes sense,” he said.

Duarte, for his part, said that additional testing, both on the ground and in the air, could be helpful. Autonomous aerial refueling is one area that could benefit from further exploration, but it will depend on whether the program can obtain additional funding, he said.

“There is always something we can do and learn, and from a concept of operations development perspective, we have tremendous opportunity to continue with the X-47,” he said. “It will be a business case decision, whether the resources are available.”

The carrier drone has already extended its lifeline a couple times. After its first touch-and-go and arrested landings in May 2013, Northrop Grumman executives said that the program would end that summer.

Credit: The F-18 and X-47B prepare to launch off the deck of the USS Theodore Roosevelt (photo by Valerie Insinna)


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