Wings Magazine

News
F-18, X-47B UAV fly historic mission

Aug. 19, 2014, Norfolk, Va. - A computer-controlled drone launched, flew and landed alongside a fighter jet during an exercise Sunday off the Virginia coast — proving for the first time that manned and unmanned aircraft can operate together.


August 19, 2014
By The Daily Press

In tests aboard the Norfolk-based USS Theodore Roosevelt, the Navy
launched an F/A-18 Hornet and the X-47B, a prototype unmanned aircraft.
After a 24-minute flight, the X-47B landed on the carrier's flight deck,
folded its wings and taxied away from the landing area, allowing the
Hornet to land.

"What
you saw today was history," said Rear Adm. Mat Winter, who oversees the
Program Executive Office for Unmanned Aviation and Strike Weapons, at a
news conference following the trial runs. "It was history in the making
and it's the next steps in our understanding of how technologies come
together to the tactical — to provide a war-fighting capabilities."

 

The
X-47B is largely autonomous and doesn't require human guidance to fly.
Instead, it receives directions via computers and sensors, then flies
itself, though it won't decide to break off and follow something on its
own.

Advertisment

 

Sunday's demonstration was the first of six test launches and
landings the Navy planned for the drone and jet during a 10-day period
aboard the Roosevelt. Later this week, the Navy also plans to test the
X-47B's movement on deck at night and in varying wind.

 

Despite a
few delays, Capt. Beau Duarte, program manager for the Navy's Unmanned
Carrier Aviation office, said the test met all objectives.

 

The
drone that was supposed to participate in Sunday's trial did not make it
to the carrier, but instead returned to shore after a fuel pump problem
was discovered.

 

Another X-47B took its place, but its catapult
launch was delayed because the bow of the carrier was slightly lower
than its rear. For launching experimental aircraft, the flight deck must
be level or better, Duarte said. It took about 30 minutes to move
equipment and transfer fuel to the rear of the ship.

 

The Hornet
took off first, followed by the drone. Both banked around the ship at
about 1,200 feet for an eight-minute flight pattern and passed overhead.
Another eight minutes passed when the drone approached the carrier,
touched down and then immediately took off again — this sequence was
meant to verify that all of the X-47B's systems were working correctly.

 

After
another pass, the drone landed and caught a wire on the ship's deck
with an auto-retractable hook. A deck operator wearing a newly designed
control steered the X-47B out of the way for the jet to land. Then the
sequence was repeated.

 

The trial marks the prototype X-47B's fifth
test period at sea, according to the Navy. Last summer, it made history
after successfully landing aboard an aircraft carrier for the first
time.

 

Since then, the drone has completed eight catapult launches
from a carrier, 30 touch-and-goes, and seven arrested landings aboard
USS George H.W. Bush and the Roosevelt.

It is expected to take years of additional work before unmanned
aircraft become a regular part of the Navy's air wings, but Sunday's
trial is a step closer.

 

The prototype is being used to develop a
new class of drone that will launch from carriers, alongside manned
aircraft, with surveillance and strike capabilities. Winter said this
program, called UCLASS, has been delayed for deployment until 2020.

 

Winter
said it is important to "bring these technologies together in
war-fighting capabilities to provide the decisive advantage and that
capability enhancement, so we can continue to fight the fight and win."

 

But he said the drones will not take the place of manned craft nor will computers take the place of pilots.

 

"It's
not an unmanned over all others," Winter said. "It's a blending of
unmanned and manned capabilities, and that will be the naval aviation
strategy as we move into the future."