[UPDATED: Key test goal met] Robots may be the future of war, but for now they’re going to have to share the battlefield with humans and human-operated vehicles. That’s especially tricky in the tight confines of a Navy carrier’s flight deck, where one miscalculation could drive a drone into a manned aircraft, the bridge island, a sailor, or the sea. Last summer, the X-47B UCAS (Unmanned Combat Air System) became the first pilotless aircraft to take off and land from a carrier — but the Navy cleared everything else off the flight deck first. Today, though, for the first time in history, the X-47B both took off and landed alongside a manned aircraft, the Navy’s standard F/A-18E Super Hornet fighter.

The U.S. Navy's unmanned X-47B conducts flight operations aboard the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71). The aircraft completed a series of tests demonstrating its ability to operate safely and seamlessly with manned aircraft. Operating alongside an F/A-18, the X-47B demonstrated two successful launch and recovery sequences. The Theodore Roosevelt is currently underway preparing for future deployments. Photo by Alan Radecki.

The X-47 drone and a manned F/A-18 Super Hornet side by side on the USS Theodore Roosevelt during the August 17 test.

In fact, the goal for today’s flight test on the USS Theodore Roosevelt was for the two aircraft to take off within 90 seconds of one another. Likewise, they both had to land within a minute and a half. (I’m still awaiting word on whether they achieved these goals). [UPDATED: The UCAS met the 90-second goal for landing and clearing the landing area, the more challenging of the two goals; the Navy’s still analyzing data on the takeoffs]. On takeoff, that means having the second aircraft so close behind the first that it must shelter behind enormous metal shields called “jet blast deflectors,” when then drop so it can taxi forward onto the catapult. On landing, it means the first aircraft must unhook itself from the arrestor cables and taxi out of the way as fast as possible. That’s tough, but it’s the kind of tempo required to hurl a fighter squadron into the air for a strike and bring them back aboard quickly when they’re running low of fuel. If drones slow things down, they can’t be used alongside manned aircraft in any kind of urgent situation.

140817-N-CE233ATLANTIC OCEAN (August 17, 2014) – The Navy’s unmanned X-47B conducts flight operations aboard the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71). The aircraft completed a series of tests demonstrating its ability to operate safely anThe whole point is to integrate unmanned aircraft seamlessly into the regular rhythm of the existing air wing. So the manned F-18 used for today’s test had “no special equipment, no upgrades,” said Capt. Beau Duarte, the Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) program manager for unmanned carrier aviation, in a call with reporters Friday. It did have a professional test pilot at the controls instead of a regular Navy flier, however, for obvious safety reasons.

The Northrop-built UCAS did get upgraded for the occasion, with new software and mechanisms that allow it to detach its tailhook from the arrestor wire, fold its wings, and trundle swiftly out of the way of the next plane to land. But the demonstrator aircraft still does not have JPALS, the in-development Joint Precision Approach and Landing System being developed to guide both manned and unmanned aircraft in the future. That means not all of today’s lessons-learned will transfer to the Navy’s first operational carrier drone, Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike system (UCLASS), whose design is becoming increasingly controversial on Capitol Hill.

Updated 3:30 pm Monday.

140817-N-CE233ATLANTIC OCEAN (August 17, 2014) – The Navy’s unmanned X-47B conducts flight operations aboard the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71). The aircraft completed a series of tests demonstrating its ability to operate safely an

Comments

  • CharleyA

    Meanwhile, “operational” F-35s wallow within a restricted flight regime, while the X-47 program seems to be moving right along. Perhaps separate aircraft programs for the diverse needs of the 3 branches will proven to be more efficient.

  • originalone

    “Boys & their Toys”. With the latest I.A. development success, i.e. self learning that DARPA is funding, it wont be too much longer before they wont need the human input that controls these potential “Terminator” based machines. In fact, perhaps that’s what is taking place today, we just don’t know it? Besides, if the 3 branches of service canned the F35, just think how many of these/those drones could be bought? Is that any way to run a war machine? Any takers?

  • Fan of Sizzle

    Has the Navy cleared this with Don Bacon? Does he approve of this program?

  • Scott Moore

    It appears to be a Hornet and not a Super Hornet in the images and video. F/A-18D instead of an F/A-18F.

    • Jon

      Squere intakes – definitly a super hornet

      • Scott Moore

        Small LEX area. It’s not a Super Hornet. I have home field on this one. I’m a final inspector for this program. It’s a D model on the cat

        • Paddles

          You are both correct to an extent. Super in the top picture from flight deck. C model on cat next to it on airborne picture.

        • Paddles

          We had three hornets out there with us. One super and two c models

  • Mircea Smarandi

    “Today, though, for the first time in history, the X-47B both took off and landed alongside a manned aircraft”

    Should add “from a carrier”.

    On March, 20th of this year, the nEUROn, the Rafale and a civilian aircraft, a Falcon 7X, took off and landed together from the french AB Istres.

    Or maybe is a matter of the X-47B only.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MuoVNtQ2Jcw#t=63

    • Jon

      carier landing is a whole different oppera

    • M&S

      Without ABSAA or similar, onboard, sense and avoid, capabilities it is criminally foolish to fly close formation on anything as potentially laggy or downable as a remote operator link.

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vxglp0msEcw

      I am probably a bigger UCAV fan than anyone on this forum but I am smart enough to draw the line at doing anything but safe route and marshal stack separations for something which literally has no sense of mortality to push a ‘drive defensively’ conditioned respect for other airframes in the same volume.

      That said, probably one of the biggest improvements to the CVN-78 class which I have not yet heard anything about (compared to EMALs which is all over the place) would be something tat allows rapid ‘flex decking’ via some kind of automated rig/unrig capability with the cross deck pendant.

      That is where your real configurational lag comes from and that is what you need to think about as you advance into a future where aircraft are not on a 1:45 sortie evolution as deck cycle but anything up to 15-20hrs.

      It’s always the funnel, never the water which ultimately dictates throughput and right now, the flying day for a carrier airwing is simply too short to be of much use as an overland power projector ‘from the sea forward’ to operational depths like Afghanistan.

      Which is the principle advantage that the UCAV can bring to the airwing in a ‘not a 110 knot Predator’ sense of safety and low transit times differentiated fashion.

  • rugfunster

    I’m putting in an order for 40 thousand of these drones. We’ll need 1574 in flight fuel tankers. Everything will sync up automatically. It’s time to darken the skies.

  • Charley B

    This is absolutely amazing! I have had the unique experience to work on some of these projects and I am proud to have taken part.

  • ycplum

    Building a carrier is difficult. Building aircrafts that can take off and land on a carrier is difficult. But orchestrating the operations of a carrier makes the two look like child’s play. It is also one of the reasons I do not believe the Chinese carrier is 100% hi-tempo, all-weather, combat operational.
    .
    PS. Anyone knows which navies can conduct hi-tempo, night carrier operations? Like at a rate of one plane launched very minute or two? And their recovery, of course.