30 November 2012
While China conducts, and celebrates, the first jet takeoffs and landings on its new aircraft carrier Liaoning, the U.S. Navy is aiming to do even better. In a parallel series of tests this week, the sailing branch has taken huge steps towards deploying the first carrier-based robotic warplane.
The biggest milestone will be the X-47B’s first at-sea takeoff, slated for sometime next year. In the meantime, the Navy and drone-builder Northrop Grumman are practicing steering the pilotless warplane around a carrier deck and launching it using a steam-powered catapult — standard equipment on all 10 of the Navy’s full-size flattops.
These are significant advances in their own right — and necessary to prepare the fleet for the first carrier takeoff.
On Monday sailors used a crane to lift one of the two X-47B prototypes aboard the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman, while the 1,100-foot-long flattop was docked in Norfolk, Virginia. ”The moment the aircraft set down on Truman’s deck was the moment it officially met the fleet,” said Capt. Jaime Engdahl, the Navy’s X-47B program manager.
The batwing X-47B, which had its first flight in California in February, is performing a series of deckhandling tests aboard Truman. Operators use a handheld controller to steer the 62-foot-wide drone warplane around the vessel’s crowded flight deck, hoping to prove the robot can safely share the ship with F/A-18 fighters, E-2 radar planes, helicopters and other manned aircraft. “It’s the first time we’ve had real operators driving real UAVs around,” Engdahl tells Danger Room.
Truman is the first carrier to host an X-47B. Northrop and the Navy have developed a suite of operator consoles, radio links and software — the latter totaling 3.5 million lines of code — that can be installed on any of the Nimitz-class carriers. All the Navy’s east coast carriers have gotten some or all of the modifications. The west coast and Pacific carriers could be next.
The X-47B could hop onto ships other than Truman to continue its development. Northrop and the Navy “will be ready for whatever carrier decks are going to be available to us next year,” says Don Blottenberger, the sailing branch’s deputy program manager for the X-47B.
In a related test at Naval Air Station Patuxent River in Maryland on Nov. 29, Navy and Northrop personnel positioned the other X-47B prototype on a steam catapult built into one of the base’s runways. As seen in the official video above, the catapult hurled the drone into the air, proving — in theory, at least — that the X-47B can take off from a carrier. As the robot winged away, one of the test crew pumped his fists in victory.
More catapult launches are planned. “We do a very conservative buildup in terms of the acceleration of the aircraft, in terms of the end speed the aircraft comes off with, in terms of the weight of the vehicle,” Engdahl says. The ground takeoffs help establish the parameters of the drone’s capabilities ahead of the 2013 at-sea launch.
The successful twin tests are encouraging signs for the Navy, which is counting on seagoing, armed drones to revamp its air wings. With the retirement of the long-range F-14s and A-6 carrier planes developed during the Cold War, the sailing branch has come to rely solely on the newer F/A-18, a comparatively short-legged jet that could force carriers to sail within missile range of an enemy’s coast before they can launch air strikes. China’s naval buildup has only heightened the Navy’s sense of urgency.
The X-47B — more accurately, the frontline killer drone design meant to follow after the Northrop test model around 2018 — could fly much farther than the F/A-18: 1,500 miles versus the manned jet’s 400. “A carrier-based [Unmanned Combat Air System] with an unrefueled combat radius of 1,500 nautical miles or more and unconstrained by pilot physiology offers a significant boost in carrier combat capability,” the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments posited in a 2008 study.
It starts small, with deck maneuvers and practice launches on land. But
if these tests result in a fully operational carrier-based killer drone,
in a few years the U.S. Navy could have as much reason to celebrate as the
Chinese do today.