A Northrop Grumman X-47B unmanned air vehicle completed the type's first night flight on 10 April – the same day the UAV's development team won the Robert J Collier Trophy from the National Aeronautic Association.

The aircraft, developed by Northrop as a demonstrator for the US Navy’s unmanned carrier-launched airborne surveillance and strike (UCLASS) programme, conducted the night flight at NAS Patuxent River in Maryland, according to a USN media release.

The service says night flights are the “next incremental step in developing the operations concept for more routine UAS flight activity”. It adds that the navy will continue developing procedures to ensure the X-47B can operate co-operatively with manned aircraft.


X-47B's first night flight at NAS Patuxent River on 10 April 2014. USN.

Northrop Grumman is one of four companies expected to bid on the UCLASS programme following the release of a request for proposals, which is due by the end of the month.

Competitors are expected to include Boeing, Lockheed Martin and General Atomics Aeronautical Systems.

The US Navy's fiscal year 2015 budget proposal, which requires Congressional approval, includes $403 million for UCLASS funding for fiscal year 2015.

The USN projects spending $2.67 billion on the programme through to fiscal year 2019.

A 2013 report from the US Government Accountability Office says the service expects to eventually field between six and 24 of the stealthy UAVs, although the service tells Flightglobal the ultimate number acquired will depend on the platform's capabilities.

The report notes that the programme faces a scheduling risk, and states the navy “will be challenged to effectively manage” and integrate the UCLASS air vehicle with carrier and control systems.

It adds that cost estimates are uncertain and could exceed available funding, and says problems could arise due to the source selection process being “compressed” to eight months, from a typical 12 months.

The capabilities required have reportedly been in flux, with news surfacing last year that the tight budget environment led the service to relax requirements for stealth, in-flight refuelling and the ability to operate in contested airspace.

On the same day as the night flight, Northrop announced that the X-47B’s recent carrier operations earned the development team the 2013 Collier Trophy, which recognises achievements in aeronautics or astronautics.

The X-47B launched from the USS George H.W. Bush on 14 May 2013. It later conducted touch-and-go carrier landings, and in July 2013 made a full, arrested carrier landing.

The trophy will be awarded to team members from Northrop Grumman, the navy and industry partners on 29 May. The winner for 2012 was NASA and the JPL Mars Science Laboratory for their success landing the Curiosity rover on Mars. Other notable past winners include Boeing in 2011 for its 787, Sikorsky for its X2 demonstrator in 2010, the team that developed the Lockheed F-22 in 2006 and the Northrop Grumman Global Hawk team in 2000.

The first two Collier awards, for 1911 and 1912, went to Glenn Curtiss for developing the first hydro-aeroplane and flying boat.

Source: FlightGlobal.com