Navy One Step Closer To UAV Carrier Ops

The U.S. Navy just got a little closer to its goal of routinely flying combat drones off carriers by the close of the decade when an F/A-18 Hornet landed itself on the deck of the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN-69) using flight control software designed for the Northrop-Grumman-built X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System Demonstrator or UCAS-D.

On July 2, the F/A-18 (shown above) performed dozens of arrested landings without any input from the pilot in the Atlantic Ocean off the Virginia Capes. What’s really interesting about this is that the jet wasn’t controlled by someone in the carrier the way current drones are controlled from ground stations. No, this jet simply received a command from the carrier’s air traffic control to enter the landing pattern and execute the landing all on its own; the same way a piloted jet would.

“Once he’s on his approach, we actually take control of the aircraft via the systems we have installed as part of the demo and actually the aircraft is controlled by flight [rules] we put in place, all the way down to trap,” said Don Blottenberger,the Navy’s UCAS-D deputy principal program manager during a phone call with reporters this morning. “There is no remote control of the aircraft, there is no pilot control of the aircraft; we’ve given it instructions and it executes those instructions.”

Just to make it clear, Blottenberger added:

“There is no remote control, meaning there is no joystick, there’s no one that’s flying this aircraft from the carrier, we give it commands via the network we have in place . . . tying in with existing carrier systems and then the aircraft executes those commands.”

The system, which uses precision-GPS navigation data transmitted over Rockwell Collins’ Tactical Targeting Network Technology (which I thought was defunct), allows the air traffic controllers, air boss and landing signals officer to tell the plane to enter the approach and perform all the necessary adjustments in heading, altitude and speed necessary to perform a trap. In the final phase of the approach, the LSO can even order the jet to wave off using his terminal that has been modified to communicate with an unmanned jet, according to NAVAIR officials.

According to the Hornet’s pilot, Lt. Jeremy DeBons, the landing felt no different from when an F/A-18 lands using the Automated Carrier Landing System, although. Still, he kept his “hands very close” to the controls during the ‘hands-off’ landings.

The new, GPS-based system developed for the UCAS-D has 360-degree coverage around the ship; the ability to control multiple aircraft and allows the actual airplane to determine how it will fly according to the commands from air traffic control. The older radar-based auto-land system has limited coverage off the stern of the carrier, determines what type of stick and throttle inputs should be performed for the plane and can only control a limited number of aircraft, according to NAVAIR officials.

Now the Navy has proven the auto-landing system works, the two X-47Bs will be flown to NAS Patuxent River in Maryland where they’ll do everything from perform cat shots and arrested landings to practice operating on a crowded carrier deck mock up and flying in its airspace throughout next year. If all goes well, this will pave the way for an actual carrier landing by an X-47B sometime in 2013, according to NAVAIR.

  • John Moore

    By the time the f-35 gets here these drone`s will own the sky!

  • Guest A

    I can’t wait to see those things tooling around in the air around Pax…

  • Pandaa

    I for one welcome our new drone overlords

    • Matt

      Watch the Matrix recently?

  • jamesb

    EVERYONE misses the point here….

    The piece makes it clear that this redundancies means that there should NEVER be a time when a carrier a/c can’t be landed, right?

    If a pilot is hurt or off his/her game….

    The a/c can simply land itself…..

    Of-course the software works fine in good weather, right?
    What about an electrical storm or bad weather when the a/c can’t get good GPS fix?

    This IS progress though…
    No doubt….
    Could save the Navy and taxpayers from a a lot of bent air frames…..

    • blight

      It also means less lost airframes to human error; for takeoff and landing. It could also mean reducing the amount of ground crews if we move to more automation.

    • Cheesed

      This reads like the introduction to a MilPorn novel.

      • blight

        Is it the …

        • Cheesed

          Yeah. I should’ve made that more clear… but I’m glad that you got it.

          • blight

            If a pilot is hurt or off his/her game….

            The a/c can simply land itself…..

            “[insert tripe review here]!” ~[name here]

            [TITLE: ALL CAPS]

          • Cheesed

            DYNO MITE!

    • Sanem

      a normal process: humans don’t get better over generations, computers do

      how long before human pilots are forbidden from landing on carriers, because they have a much higher failure rate? with equipment worth billions, you play by the numbers

  • Wildb Bill

    Does it always catch the 3 wire?

  • Tomatojuice

    This sounds great…. except… what if someone is able to hack the network and there is no “human” element to control the UAV?

    • Sanem

      if someone is capable of hacking a UAV, I’d be more worried about him hacking the F-35, F-22…

  • Jack

    WIll there be a UAV leaderboard for carrier landings just like the pilots have?


  • blight

    What’s interesting is this:

    “The system, which uses precision-GPS navigation data…”

    Meaning the carrier transmits its coordinates to the aircraft, which read it and use it to prepare for landing? Sounds like the automated analogy of landing by instruments only, and it sounds like a system like this would be more robust with image-recognition components: preprogramming optimal rate of descent, image recognition to find the wire, “spatial awareness” in case your tailhook doesn’t come down completely and you must adjust landing profile to catch the arrestor cable…

    In any case, it sounds like the first steps towards an unmanned force. If U-2’s and C-130’s can be flown off carrier decks (and before that, B-25s); bring on the drones!

    • Sanem

      this will be the age of optics, computers are now developing the power to process optical information fast enough to be useful and accurate

      combined with super-human reflexes, a lack of fear or human error, and a 24/7 360 degree line of sight, this will be the future of carrier landings but also air combat (the F-35 can already use this technology to recognise and track allies and enemies)

  • Lance

    Why drones a F-18 is much more capible. SO why not spend money on a new carrier fighter that can do things F-18s cant. Drones for everything is a waste of money.

    • blight

      Drones will put pilots out of business the same way that missiles have eliminated WW1-style dogfighting. There will always be a place for pilots, but it won’t ever be the same.

      Air-to-air drones are lighter, some probably have excellent loiter times, they probably can be launched faster, they definitely can be put through higher-G maneuvers that would black out a pilot and in a pinch can be sent out at much longer ranges for one-way trips. The Navy isn’t in the business of sending pilots on one way trips to strike targets (a practice we risked in WW2 occasionally for big payoffs against the IJN), but there is a time and a place for it.

      If all you need is a flying missile truck (especially since terminal radar on the missile does the work), do you really need a manned pilot for this? For more complicated missions, pilots will probably stick around.

      • Matt

        I just can’t picture drones as primary air to air fighters anytime soon. Sure for long, risky land/sea strikes it seems to be obvious, even arming them w/ air to air missles for self defense seems entirely realistic in the near term. I just don’t see a computer being able to do all the quick thinking/creative things involved in a dogfight w/ processors small enough to fit on the aircraft (in the near term of course, in 50+ years who knows). A carrier landing and ground strikes are simipler. The targets are slower, they only move in 2D, aren’t trying to avoid you (landings), and the bomb guidence does most of the work (strikes). If you use larger computers that just transmit to the UCAV you risk lag or worse being jammed. UAVs are a big part of the future but just like the Gatling gun didnt replace large armies, the missle didnt get rid of aircraft guns, etc I just find it tough to believe it will remove pilots as we know them.

        • blight2

          The most primitive AI implementation would be an echo of how IBM approached the Deep Blue chess match in the ’90s: design a computer capable of calculating as many possible outcomes as possible, then choose best outcomes. For instance, at any instance in a dogfight, choose the best evasive maneuvers with respect to the inputs (enemy fighter type, missiles fired, fuel, etc). It’s more a software problem before it becomes a hardware one.

          Or in the case of modern BVR combat, assess radar contacts, engage if they don’t meet IFF. Or, they engage only when instructed to by a CVN or aircraft.

          I agree that there will be a time and a place for pilots, and that not all technological improvements completely supersede their precedents, but some do. Knights no longer charge with lances. Recoiless rifles are almost gone. Cavalry charges have been dead since WW2, and that “horseback charge” in Afghanistan probably didn’t involve them running at the enemy with guns blazing (instead it was just guys on horseback).

          The missile didn’t get rid of aircraft guns, but when was the last gun kill of an enemy fighter plane? They remain in play for ground support, and probably to shred drones, but against aircraft?

  • Beltway Bandit

    Would love to see the pilots underwear after that trap…

  • blight

    Since my posts aren’t showing up on the Afghan IED news thread, FYI:

    Is the correct link. That is all.

  • Narl

    In WWII, Japan had aircraft carrier subs, maybe we should adopt the concept with our drone carriers.

  • Elijah

    Kilroy was here. So was the Airfoce, Army, Marines, and The Navy. The Coast Guard had to guard the home front.

  • William R. Abernathy

    It is or was called ACLS (Automated Carrier Landing System) – I was an E6 Navy ET assigned to Bell Aero Systems in 1969 landing F4-Phantoms at the same runway in PAX. At that time we loaded the computer program in a refrigerator size Univac with a roll of paper punch tape. I should have stayed in the Navy… Sure looks like fun.

    • blight_

      Curious. Wouldn’t the computer have to be aboard the aircraft? I’m sure a Univac would bite into range and payload, and if damaged…

  • Torch


  • Bel

    Seeing a typhoon launch and recover ucavs would be good. Seeing starlifter and galaxy set up to carry launch refuel & recover ucav, and perhaps lift spooky spectre load, i hear they are groaning.