The US Navy has completed the first ever catapult launch of the Northrop Grumman X-47B unmanned combat air system demonstrator (UCAS-D) aircraft at NAS Patuxent River, Maryland, earlier today. Apparently it went very well, the Navy sent over this video of the launch earlier this evening.
The catapult shot is a crucial step towards the jet’s initial sea-trials, which are expected next year (the X-47B that’s on Truman right now is merely doing deck-handling exercises). The sea-trials will involve catapult launches, arrested recoveries and having the X-47B fly the pattern around the “boat” while coordinating with carrier’s air traffic controllers. The idea behind the UCAS-D is to prove that an autonomous unmanned aircraft can safely operate at sea onboard a carrier.
If the X-47B fails, the prospects for the follow-on Unmanned Carrier Launched Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) aircraft program would dim markedly. The Navy is counting on the X-47B to pave the way for that program.