By W.J. Hennigan, Los Angeles Times –
The U.S. Navy’s new bat-winged experimental drone has been delivered to an aircraft carrier to undergo handling tests aboard the ship.
The Navy said that sailors aboard the aircraft carrier Harry S. Truman took delivery of the drone Monday from Naval Air Station Patuxent River in Maryland, where it had been undergoing tests.
Truman is the first aircraft carrier to conduct test operations for an unmanned aircraft.
The drone, named the X-47B, is designed to perform one of aviation’s most difficult maneuvers: landing on the deck of an aircraft carrier. What’s even more remarkable is that it will do that not only without a pilot in the cockpit, but without a pilot at all.
With the drone’s ability to be flown autonomously by onboard computer, the X-47B marks a paradigm shift in warfare.
Currently, combat drones are controlled remotely by a human pilot. The X-47B could carry out a combat mission controlled entirely by a computer. A human pilot designs a flight path and sends it on its way, and a computer program guides it from a ship to target and back.
The X-47B is designed to fly farther and stay in the air longer than existing aircraft because it does not depend on a human pilot’s endurance. Navy fighter pilots may fly missions as long as 10 hours. Current drones can fly three times as long.
Two X-47Bs were built under a $635.8 million contract awarded by the Navy in 2007. They were constructed behind a barbed-wire fences and double security doors at Northrop Grumman Corp.’s expansive facility in Palmdale, Calif.
The X-47B is an experimental jet — that’s what the X stands for — and is designed to demonstrate new technology, such as automated takeoffs, landings and refueling. The drone also has a fully capable weapons bay with a payload capacity of 4,500 pounds, but the Navy said it has no plans to arm it.
In February 2010, the first X-47B had its maiden flight from Edwards Air Force Base, where it continued testing until last December, when it was shipped from the Mojave Desert to the air station in southern Maryland.
The drone, strapped to the back of a big rig, caused a stir on its cross-country trip when people mistook the sleek robotic jet for a UFO.
The Navy has said it expects the X-47B to first land on a carrier by 2013, relying on pinpoint GPS coordinates and advanced avionics. The carrier’s computers digitally transmit the carrier’s speed, cross-winds and other data to the drone as it approaches from miles away.