After six hard years of gruelling development work, the US Navy hopes to make history by making the first "trap" on board an aircraft carrier by an unmanned air vehicle on 10 July, service officials say.
If everything goes as planned and the Northrop Grumman X-47B unmanned combat air system demonstrator (UCAS-D) catches a "cross-deck pendant" on board the Nimitz-class carrier USS George H W Bush, the event could be as significant as naval aviation pioneer Eugene Ely's first shipborne take-offs and landings in 1910 and 1911.
While the X-47B is merely a demonstrator, it is the technological pathfinder for the navy's unmanned carrier-launched surveillance and strike (UCLASS) aircraft effort, which will become the service's first operational carrier-based UAV.
"We are a demonstration programme," says Rear Adm Mat Winter, Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) programme executive officer for unmanned aviation and strike weapons. "Our primary objective for the X-47 has been and continues to be demonstrating the feasibility of operating an unmanned vehicle, and specifically a tailless-configured unmanned vehicle, in the harsh and highly dynamic carrier environment."
The USN has already tested most of the functionality of the X-47B both on land and at sea, save for landing on board a carrier, Winter says. The precision ship-relative GPS and data-links that make the X-47B tick have been proven repeatedly on shore and the aircraft launched from the carrier earlier in May.
For the planned first carrier arrest on 10 July, Capt Jaime Engdahl, NAVAIR's unmanned combat air systems programme manager, says that the X-47B will launch from NAS Patuxent River in Maryland and recover on board the carrier, which will be sailing off the Virginia coast. Once the aircraft makes its first trap, it will be briefly checked before it taxis to the port forward catapult to make another go around the giant vessel.
Engdahl says that the programme will perform a minimum of three arrested landings on board the carrier during the ship's week-long voyage, but the aim is to do more. However, there will not be time to evaluate the aircraft's performance in inclement weather or rough sea conditions, he says. Those characteristics are being evaluated in simulations.
A successful series of carrier-arrested recoveries will be the culmination of the entire UCAS-D effort, Winter says. After the demonstration, the two X-47B air vehicles will be retired to museums in Pensacola, Florida, and Patuxent River, he says.
However, while the X-47Bs will be retired, the technology and operational procedures gained from the programme will be put to good use on the UCLASS activity. "That is the programme of record," Winter says. "This is a demonstration programme. The UCLASS programme will benefit from all of what we have done here."