ROBOTICS AND AUTONOMOUS SYSTEMS
Navy Carrier Drone Not Immune to Budget Worries
Navy officials said that technological issues have been the least of their worries for the Unmanned Combat Air System program that seeks to produce autonomous drones that can land on and take off from carriers.
The largest shadows have been cast by fiscal uncertainty and limited access to carriers for testing, Program Manager Capt. Jaime W. Engdahl said July 31 as reporters were given a first glimpse at one of the two stealth drones built by Northrop Grumman.
Engdahl said he is confident that the "precision GPS technology is there." But he cautioned that other obstacles lie head. "The most difficult part of this program is keeping everything moving and continuing to execute in this budget environment and with the carrier constraints.”
Despite these concerns, officials here are pushing ahead with plans to perform sea trials with the X-47B demonstrators next year whenever a carrier becomes available.
The program's funding so far is $875 million, with expenditures of $143 million and $41 million carved out for fiscal year 2013 and 2014, respectively. Officials are operating under the expectation that the money will continue to be there, said Rear Adm. Mat Winter, who is a little more than a week into his role as program executive officer for unmanned systems and strike weapons. Leaders generally have been trying to protect unmanned aircraft from budget cuts, he said.
The Navy began investigating the possibility of flying drones off carriers about 10 years ago, Engdahl said.
Flight tests already have been conducted at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif. The second of the two bat-winged jets recently arrived on the East Coast for further testing, causing some motorists to claim they had seen a UFO being transported on the Beltway.
Its first flight here on July 29 consisted of 35 minutes doing racetrack patterns over the Chesapeake Bay. The aircraft reached an altitude of 7,500 feet and a speed of 180 knots, Northrop Grumman officials said.
The drones were brought here to take advantage of 52,000 square miles of test range located off the coast. It also is one of only two places where the Navy works on catapult systems that launch aircraft from carriers and arresting gear that slows them down when they land.
A facility on base here has been built to replicate the control systems on a carrier. Engineers began assembling the center in 2007, Cmdr. Jeff Dodge said.
“What we had to do to get an unmanned aircraft to operate [on a carrier] is take the entire aircraft carrier and digitize it,” he said.
A controller worn on the arm will help crew members move the drone about the carrier after it lands. Another handheld device allows a sailor to push a button that tells the aircraft to “wave off” a landing at the last minute if things don’t look right. In the mock control center, screens mimic what operators would see out the windows of the ship. Digital representations of X-47Bs can be seen circling around the deck to come in for a landing. A monitor displays different commands, including the wave off. Another calls for a “magic carpet” landing.
The goal is to work out all of the kinks as expeditiously as possible, officials said. Already, certain tasks have been completed in less than half the planned testing time, they said.
“We’re not waiting for this aircraft to deploy,” said Rear Adm. Randolph Mahr, assistant commander for research and engineering at Naval Air Systems Command.
Flight tests have validated the X-47B’s aerodynamic and propulsion performance and its ability to respond to commands from onboard guidance, navigation and control software.
“When it gets airborne, the aircraft does exactly what it says,” Engdahl said. “If things happen to the air vehicle then the air vehicle has the smarts to react specifically to that condition.”
Still, officials aren’t yet experimenting with weapons or sensors on the drones. They are focusing solely on what it takes to get the autonomous aircraft to land on, take off from and move about a carrier.
The Navy has a slight reference point given that it has operated unmanned Fire Scout rotorcraft off frigates, Winter said, though he acknowledged the difference in scale between the two operations. The X-47B is 38 feet long and has a wingspan of 62 feet. It has no tail and folding wings but weighs 44,500 pounds. A Fire Scout weighs about 3,000 pounds.
The Navy wants to have unmanned aircraft operating aboard carriers by the 2018-2020 timeframe, Winter said.
The Navy eventually will release a request for bids on an Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) program. For now, though, Winter declined to discuss details of that effort.