The X-47B's most recent milestone came with a night flight earlier this year. It'll be back on a carrier this summer. (Erik Hildebrandt/Navy)
The Navy’s one-of-a-kind autonomous drone heads to the fleet later this summer for the next step of testing: landing and taking off alongside manned aircraft.
This summer, the X-47B goesback out to sea with the carrier Theodore Roosevelt to complete takeoffs and landings from a moving carrier with jets in the pattern.
“The next step is to operate the aircraft in the pattern with a manned counterpart,” said Capt. Beau Duarte, Unmanned Combat Air Systems Demonstration program manager for Naval Air Systems Command. “We’ll have a couple of F/A-18s, so we can evaluate the ability to land and clear the landing area, see if we can mimic the time lines that are required for manned aircraft.”
So far, the testing has consisted of perfecting taxi, takeoff and landing routines — first from land, then from a land-based catapult, and now from a catapult on an aircraft carrier at sea.
The program hit its latest milestone in April, when the aircraft made its first night flight over Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Maryland. The vehicle operates the same no matter the time of day, Duarte said, but the option to fly in the wee hours is a big deal for the demonstration program.
“From a day or night perspective, the air vehicle doesn’t really care what it looks like outside. It’s just external stimuli that it reacts to,” he said in a May 27 phone interview. “But from a test and evaluation perspective, if we can fly at night, there’s less aircraft at night. It’s a little bit easier to get airspace.”
Some night taxi plans are in place, Duarte said, and there’s potential for night flights from the carrier.
“It’s not as much difference to the air vehicle, but from a concept of operations and from an integration with air traffic control and with the tower, it’s a little more of a stress exercise,” he said.
How it flies
When you think unmanned aerial vehicle, you probably picture a model plane with an operator in front of a computer screen. The Navy, however, is taking that a step further with the X-47B. Its wingspan is 20 feet wider than an F/A-18 and it essentially flies itself around an aircraft carrier.
The challenge is the X-47B flies autonomously via plans programmed into its software, so there’s not always opportunity for the improvisation made possible by a pilot communicating with the carrier, Duarte said.
“Basically what the demonstration team had to do was to look at those most commonly used commands, orders, and to put those in a standardized format and to code them into the software of the air vehicle system, to be able to take a command to go predictably and repeatedly to where desired, but with enough flexibility to cover the entire mission set operating around the aircraft carrier,” he said.
The UAV itself is about 38 feet long and 10 feet tall, with a 62-foot wingspan, weighing in at 4,500 pounds. It got its start as a joint Air Force-Navy effort with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, but after the program was terminated, the Navy decided to take it on as a demonstration vehicle for a future, missionized autonomous aircraft.
The upcoming fleet demo will test the deck-handling controls Duarte and his team created, to manually move the aircraft around the flight deck and out of the way of other aircraft once it’s landed.
“So once the air vehicle lands on the aircraft carrier, with no one in the cockpit, you require the flexibility to maneuver around obstacles,” he said. “It’s very hard to pre-program, once you’re on the deck, what you need the aircraft to do, because the carrier is such a dynamic environment.”
The solution is an arm-mounted joystick display unit that a deck-based operator can use to maneuver the aircraft based on signals from the taxi director. This requires a little more training for the operator, who is accustomed to directing pilots around the flight deck.
For the most part, however, the X-47B is designed to be completely autonomous. Duarte said that unlike Army or Air Force unmanned aircraft, which are controlled by remote operators, the Navy’s vehicle follows pre-programmed routines.
An operator on the carrier deck only has to choose what he wants the aircraft to do, then sit back and watch.
“He is as much a mission manager as he is someone who’s physically controlling the aircraft,” Duarte said.
Though NAVAIR engineers are the ones currently controlling the X-47B, in the future the Navy will have to figure out what kind of aircrew an unmanned carrier-based aircraft would have.
“It could be a pilot, a flight officer, an enlisted operator. We will use the next follow-on program to really flesh out, from the mission standpoint, what the concept of operations will be,” he said. “In the long term, it will be worked on by sailors at units based on the aircraft carrier.”
The program is only funded through fiscal year 2015, Duarte said, but that’s a step up from the 2013 end date it had originally. After the aircraft’s first catapult launch, from the carrier George H.W. Bush in May 2013, “The Navy decided that there’s more life left in the X-47,” he said.
The next goal is to complete an autonomous aerial refueling, where the X-47B receives fuel from a manned aircraft. Duarte said his team is working on the software to get that done, and they’ll look at funding it later this year.