Tuesday, May 14, 2013, has gone down as an historic day for U.S. naval aviation, with the first launch at sea of an autonomous, unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV). Off the coast of Virginia, the USS George H.W. Bush (CVN 77) launched a Northrop Grumman X-47B UAV, beginning the at-sea flying trials of the aircraft. The X-47B is a product of the joint U.S. Navy (USN)/Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Unmanned Combat Air System – Carrier Demonstration (UCAS–D) program. UCAS-D is designed to develop and demonstrate key technologies necessary to begin procurement of an Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle (UCAV) capable of operations off of aircraft carriers. This first X-47B carrier catapult launch is a critical milestone in the UCAS-D program as it moves into its final phase: at-sea testing.
Tuesday’s launch evolution began with a series of deck handling, ship integration and systems tests, prior to the aircraft taxiing to the Number 2 (port bow) catapult and being hooked up by its towbar to the shuttle. Following engine run-up, the catapult was fired at 11:18 AM EDT, and the aircraft successfully conducted an autonomous takeoff under its own control. An onboard mission control station then commanded the X-47B to conduct a series of maneuvers around the ship, including simulated approach patterns. After control of the X-47B was handed off to another ground station located at Naval Air Station (NAS) Patuxent River, Md., the aircraft flew a preprogrammed course north up the Chesapeake. Approximately 65 minutes after launch, the X-47B successfully landed at NAS Patuxent River, following what the Navy considers a perfect test flight.
“This ship and her crew continuously meet the challenges placed before them,” said Capt. Brian E. Luther, commanding officer of the Bush. “The successful launch of the X-47B is yet another first on USS George H.W. Bush. We were excited to host the experimental aircraft, and are proud to know we have played a part in a significant milestone in naval aviation.”
Matt Funk, the lead Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) test engineer for the UCAS-D program pointed out the milestones of the May 14 launch. “The flight today demonstrated that the X-47B is capable of operation from a carrier, hand-off from one mission control station to another, flight through the national airspace, and recovery at another location without degradation in safety or precision,” Funk said.
“Today we saw a small, but significant pixel in the future picture of our Navy as we begin integration of unmanned systems into arguably the most complex warfighting environment that exists today: the flight deck of a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier,” added Vice Adm. David Buss, Commander, U.S. Naval Air Forces.
This first X-47B carrier catapult launch is not the first time that the USN has catapulted UAVs off the decks of its aircraft carriers. From the late 1940s and into the early 1950s the Navy regularly operated a small fleet of modified Grumman Hellcat fighters, using radio remote control to fly them. Known as F6F-5Ks, the modified World War II fighters were used in a variety of roles, including air sample collection during the Operation Crossroads (at Bikini Atoll) atomic bomb tests, as aerial gunnery targets, and even as flying bombs during the Korean War in 1952. In addition, the USN ran a small test program during the Vietnam War operating modified Model 147 reconnaissance drones off of carriers in the Gulf of Tonkin.
But these brief Navy flirtations with UAVs never really took off until just recently, with NAVAIR now committed to developing and employing a number of different unmanned aircraft. Already in development are the MQ-8B Fire Scout and MQ–8C Fire–X unmanned helicopters and MQ-4C Triton maritime surveillance UAVs. The X-47B, however, unlike the aforementioned UAVs, is not a modification or adaptation of an existing airframe, but a completely new design with stealth, sensors, weapons carriage ability, and other operational features already built in for the UCAS-D demonstration program.
This first UCAS-D launch at sea is just the beginning of an extensive test of the capabilities developed by NAVAIR and DARPA for this program. In addition to further launch and deck handling trials, perhaps the greatest and most difficult challenge for the X-47B will be coming up in the next few months: automated, autonomous arrested carrier landings. Long considered the most difficult task regularly undertaken by U.S. military personnel, arrested carrier landings will be the final proof that it is possible for the U.S. Navy to successfully design, deploy, and operate UCAVs in the foreseeable future, allowing for replacement of manned aircraft in a number of critical roles. These potentially include intelligence, reconnaissance, and surveillance (ISR), precision strike, and even air-to-air refueling.