The Northrop Grumman X-47B has made its first aircraft carrier launch, becoming the first autonomous aircraft to launch from a carrier.
The launch, conducted 14 May from the USS George H.W. Bush in the Atlantic Ocean near Virginia, went flawlessly, according to Northrop. The aircraft was lifted aboard while the carrier was docked and sailed from port.
The launch was characterised as a "huge step" by Adm Ted Branch, the commander of naval air forces in the Atlantic area. Branch hailed the launch as showing the adaptability of aircraft carriers.
The aircraft was launched after several minutes of taxi testing and warm-ups, directed by a crewman following the aircraft with a hand-held controller, supervised by personnel from the Navy flight test centre at Patuxent River, Maryland, and Northrop personnel.
After take-off, the X-47B climbed to 1,000ft, circled and completed two practice approaches without touching down in preparation for carrier landing tests, expected in June. The aircraft is fully automated, unlike many unmanned air vehicles (UAV).
The aircraft completed the 1h flight with an arrested landing on the ground at Patuxent River.
The second of two air vehicles was selected for the test due to maintenance considerations, says the Navy. The aircraft conducted 48 flights in the previous three months in preparation.
Testing is funded through much of 2014, after which the future is unknown.
"When this programme is done, they're more than likely to go to museums," says Don Blottenberger, the Navy's deputy programme manager.
The X-47B, also called unmanned combat air system - demontration (UCAS-D), is considered a forerunner for the unmanned carrier-launched surveillance and strike (UCLASS) programme, currently being competed by Northrop, Lockheed Martin, Boeing and General Atomics Aeronautical Systems. A formal request for proposal from the Navy for UCLASS designs is expected imminently.