Unmanned X-47B Readies for Final Touchdown

By Capt. Jaime Engdahl
Program Manager, Navy Unmanned Combat Air System

Wednesday is a big day for the U.S. Navy. It is the day X-47B “Salty Dog 502” departs Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Md., and heads for USS George H.W. Bush (CVN 77), sailing off the coast of Virginia, to make an arrested landing aboard for the first time.

An X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System (UCAS) demonstrator launches from the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush (CVN 77), May 14, 2013. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Tony D. Curtis/Released)

An X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System (UCAS) demonstrator launches from the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush (CVN 77), May 14, 2013. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Tony D. Curtis/Released)

 

It has been an exciting journey for the Unmanned Combat Air System Demonstration team over the past few years and we look forward to taking one more historic step toward a future of unmanned carrier aviation this week.

Landing on a carrier’s flight deck is one of the most challenging tasks for a naval aviator – one that takes extensive training and regular practice to perfect. Upon completion of tomorrow’s flight, the X-47B will land autonomously without the guiding hand of an experienced pilot, but rather using precision GPS navigation, a high-integrity network connection and advanced flight control software to guide itself through the turbulent air behind the aircraft carrier and onto the moving flight deck.

As we approach the final few days of the Navy UCAS carrier demonstration, it is interesting to look back on a few of the historic moments that happened not so long ago. Less than a year ago, on July 29, 2012, we began unmanned flight operations at Patuxent River for this program.

X-47B operations required us to fully integrate with all manned flight operations as well as specialized test facilities and carrier suitability test sites there.

Just six months ago, we catapulted the X-47B for the first time on land from Pax River’s TC-7 catapult site.

A few days later, we craned “Salty Dog 502” onboard USS Harry S. Truman (CVN 75) to demonstrate integration with carrier deck operations and shipboard maintenance operations. Four months ago, on March 2, we performed the first, flawless precision relative navigation touchdown on the runway.

In May, Sailors aboard USS George H.W. Bush worked X-47B operations for the first time and the world watched as they catapulted the aircraft from the deck with ease.

Throughout the next few days, we saw X-47B complete nine perfect touch-and-go landings on the moving carrier deck.

When I was aboard USS George H.W. Bush during that test period, I couldn’t help but feel the buzz from the crew, who were excited to be part of the technology revolution and on the leading edge of history for unmanned systems. I asked a few of the flight deck handlers for feedback on what we could do better to integrate unmanned systems in dynamic, dangerous world of the carrier flight deck. Their response was simple, “We wouldn’t change anything; the aircraft is doing well.” The same crew aboard USS George H.W. Bush will make history again this week as we prepare to trap the X-47B for the first time.

Final X-47B shore-based arrested landings at Patuxent River were successfully completed in late June. Carrier suitability engineers put the aircraft through a series of very demanding tests, including hard landings and high speed arrestments, proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that we were ready to land on a moving carrier deck. Both X-47B aircraft are now certified to conduct carrier flight operations, including catapults, arrested landings, flight deck taxi operations, maintenance and refueling.

Our extremely professional and hardworking X-47B integrated test team has distinguished itself as the group who expertly proved an integrated system of an unmanned, tailless X-47B airframe, autonomous software, high integrity networks and ship based control systems. In fact, for the second consecutive year, our the team was recently recognized by the Association of Naval Aviation and Naval Air Systems Command with the Edward H. Heinemann Award for its significant contribution to aircraft design.

The team has done a remarkable job positioning the X-47B aircraft for this week’s demonstrations, which will support the Navy’s continued progress toward fielding unmanned carrier aviation capability. It has taken several years of software development, thousands of simulated landings in high fidelity labs and many hours of flight test in the Patuxent River landing pattern to prove this aircraft is up for the challenge. Today X-47B is ready!

As we get ready to embark on the greatest singular accomplishment for the UCAS team – our final at-sea carrier demonstration.

I can proudly say that the team is successfully demonstrating more than a decade of Navy unmanned carrier integration design knowledge, technology development and professional experience.

The revolutionary technologies that we have developed and proven in the harsh carrier environment including aerodynamics of a tailless aircraft, autonomous aircraft behavior, precision GPS navigation, and digitization of the aircraft carrier air traffic control procedures will truly impact the way we integrate manned and unmanned aircraft on carrier flight decks in the future.

While the X-47B itself is not intended for operational use, the UCAS program has developed the concept of operations and demonstrated the technology for follow-on unmanned carrier based aircraft. The program demonstrated the ability to seamlessly integrate unmanned systems into the carrier environment with only small incremental changes to the existing equipment and concept of operations.

Congratulations to all members of Team UCAS for an exceptional job well done. The next chapter in naval aviation history is being written this week.

What do you think is next for the future of naval aviation? Let us know by commenting below.