Northrop Grumman has begun installing systems in the first X-47B under the $635 million US Navy unmanned combat air system demonstrator (UCAS-D) contract won in August. The aircraft is scheduled to fly in 2009 and make its first autonomous carrier landing in 2011.

"It's 100% structurally complete," says Scott Winship, Northrop's UCAS-D programme manager. "The aircraft is out of the jig and over to paint and we're doing subsystems installation and check-out."

Although the X-47B will not make its debut until 2009, assembly is well advanced because Northrop began building the aircraft under the cancelled US Air Force/Navy J-UCAS programme. "We're finishing a programme started seven years ago," he says.

Testing of the first flight software has begun using an iron-bird rig at Northrop's Palmdale, California plant. "Once we get robust flight controls we will begin failure detection and accommodation testing, which is the real key to any unmanned aircraft," says Winship.

Fiscal year 2008 funding will be focused in completing the first X-47B. "We will get Ship 1 out and taxiing before we begin work on Ship 2," he says. Flight testing will begin at Edwards AFB in California and move to NAS Patuxent River in Maryland to begin working up to operations around and on an aircraft carrier at sea.

A Boeing F/A-18 will be used as a surrogate to test communications links, but does not have same the handling qualities as the tailless X-47B. "The US Navy has a very methodical process, and the criteria for a decision to go to the carrier are the highest I have seen in terms of reliability and autonomy," says Winship.

Source: Flight International