AUVSI: F/A-18 may perform 'hands-off' carrier landings by 2011

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A Boeing F/A-18D Hornet may perform the first "hands-off" approaches and landings to an aircraft carrier within two years, the US Navy says.

The F/A-18D autopilot will be modified with the avionics and software of the Northrop Grumman X-47B unmanned demonstrator. The manned Hornet will thus act as a surrogate testbed to "wring out" the interfaces between the aircraft and the ship, says Capt Martin Deppe.

Whether the surrogate F/A-18D actually performs a "hands-off landing" on the carrier with two pilots aboard has not been decided, but the USN clearly hopes to make that work.

"We'd like to build our way up to the point where [the pilot] couples up with the X-47 commands and is able to go hands off to the ship," Deppe says.

Northrop is building two X-47Bs to prove whether an unmanned aircraft with a tailless planform can land and operate aboard carriers. A follow-on demonstration will also investigate autonomous aerial refuelling.

In a related development, the US Air Force and the USN are in discussions "on getting some air force presence in the navy program offices so they can better understand what we're doing", Deppe says. "In return, we can understand what the air force is doing. I think that's going to be the beginning of a nice partnering relationship because we both have similar requirements in some regards for systems like these."

The partnership does not include funding at this point, Deppe says, but "it all begins with getting together and starting to talk and find out what the synergies are. Who knows where it goes from there."

The USAF and USN had previously partnered on the joint unmanned combat air systems (J-UCAS) program, which was canceled in 2005.