Navy’s Second Stealthy X-47B Drone Flies

Let’s start this post-Thanksgiving week off with a picture that reminds us the era of unmanned strike jets flying off aircraft carriers is fast approaching. Yup, those stealthy looking planes are Northrop Grumman’s X-47 Unmanned Combat Air System demonstrator jets. The first one took to the skies in February and the second X-47, dubbed Air Vehicle-2, had its first flight out of Edwards Air Force Base in California on Nov. 22. The plane flew to 5,000 feet and flew in several giant circles near the base before landing.

Now, AV-2 will stay at Edwards while the first jet is going to be shipped to NAS Patuxent River, Md., in the next month or so where the Navy will practice simulated carrier take-offs and landings with the jet. If that testing goes well, the plane will start landing on a real aircraft carrier in 2013, using this technology.

Unlike most current UAVs in service, the X-47 flies autonomously along a pre-progammed route rather than having a pilot control its every movement, as a Northrop Grumman announcement of the second aircraft’s flight explains:

The X-47B is a computer-controlled unmanned aircraft system that takes off, flies a preprogrammed mission, and then returns to base – all in response to mouse clicks from a mission operator. The operator actively monitors the X-47B air vehicle’s operation using simple situational awareness displays, but does not fly it via remote control, as some unmanned systems are operated.

All of this is meant to pave the way for the Navy’s Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike drone; a stealthy, fighter-sized, air-to-air refuelable jet that can carry bombs and ISR gear over fairly heavily defended targets. The Navy wants UCLASS to be operational by 2018, so it’s very likely going to be based on jets that are already flying, like the X-47B.

Here’s a picture of the second X-47B on its maiden flight.

  • Musson1

    What about a UAV that is catapulted from a Destroyer and retrieved via sea landing? A seaborne Predator drone shot from a non-carrier surface ship – could really extend the Navy’s reach.

    It would not need all the bells and whistles of these unmanned strike jets.

    • Guest

      This reminds me of the videos of battleships doing the same thing in the early 20th century with manned planes and early UAVs in Desert Storm. But it won’t happen, it’s far too simple.

    • If rotary wings aren’t good enough for you, a few years back the British mulled over the concept of a fixed wing UAV that took of and landed vertically, sat on its bottom – like the Convair Pogo from way back in the day (’50s?).

      Able to take off and land on the small deck of a destroyer or frigate.

    • Sanem

      – tailsitter UAV: http://www.rcgroups.com/forums/showthread.php?t=6
      – water-landing UAV: http://www.nerdmodo.com/2009/05/rq-15-neptune-uav
      – and than there’s the Fire-Scout, the Fire-X, the MQ-18, all VTOL UAV’s with impressive performance for their size and cost

      I certainly agree that a Predator (or lighter) class UAV would be an invaluable addition to any ship big enough to operate it, turning them into mini-carriers, combining the best elements of small ship and air power

      I imagine a stovl model would give the most bang for the buck, perhaps catapult launched and landing on its tail

      as mentioned a Pogo style concept would be interesting, a computer doesn’t care if it’s landing vertically

      in fact, many modern fighter can stand on their tail in the air, so in theory you could tail-land a Typhoon class aircraft

      but I fear the concept faces stiff competition from gold-plated (but not always more effective) super-carriers and the F-35B, neither of which the Navy will easily give up

    • Mastro

      It would be great for anti-piracy patrols. A lot cheaper than having a carrier or an LSD on station.

      Much longer legs than a helo-

    • mike

      what good are these drones if some clown can trick it into landing

  • Sanem

    hmmmm, twins, talk about your war porn :)

    • Tim

      And they sure look real… sexy… if you know what I mean… :)

  • ew-3

    Wonder what the effect will be of UAVs on carrier operations.

    Do their “pilots” need to get as much air time to stay sharp ?

    Can we keep UAVs in storage like we do missiles to be broken out only when needed for actual operations?

    All very exciting stuff, next 10 years will be very interesting.

    • blight

      One would hope that UAV pilots would get more “hours” with flying. We have some nice border real estate that could use guarding…sorry, border areas that are used as “flight ranges” or “testing ranges”.

    • Sanem

      well there won’t be pilots for these aircraft in the strict sense: the aircaft will fly themselves 99% of the time, just like the Global Hawk (from the same company) has been flown for a decade now

      the pilot as I understand it is reduced to keeping an eye on things. but if you put in the right parameter alerts, this job task can be greatly reduced, a single “pilot” being able to oversee multiple UCAVs, even multiple squadrons

      the accent of this weapons system will fall on the sensor and weapons operator, who’ll in effect take over as mission executer, as this is the hard part of the mission, compared to flying, in-air refueling and even landing, which can all be greatly automated

      an important question will be who takes control during the missions: for landing direct control from the carrier will be a must, but for the missions the operators need not be on the ship, they can be back in the states, the way UAVs are currently operated. combined with the reduced need for a pilot this gives a huge advantage in man power, as you can operate a huge number of aircraft for days on end, without having the operators on a cramped ship

      I’d suggest the USN join up the with the Army and USN to set up shared operating centres all over the country, sharing a pool of local operator talent, so they always have the best people in sufficient numbers at hand, regardless of the actual aircraft or the mission location. but than the services aren’t known for sharing (what organisation is?)

      as for training, the UCAVs will need to fly a lot less practice flights, as the flying itself will be mostly automated, and sensor and weapons operators can be easily trained on simulators and other UAVs

      but if UCAVs are operated anything like UAVs (that’s likely), they’ll be deployed operationally most of the time anyway

    • gSk

      These particular UAVs do not use pilots in the conventional sense. They do NOT have joysticks that a remote operator uses. Commands are input via button presses. way less “crew” fatigue. All just a demo at the moment. But huge savings on training possible. Takes a ton of flight time and training and practice to keep carrier pilots current and skilled.

    • Pam

      I know right!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?

  • dddd

    I would like to see UAVs launched from submarines. I am sure that someone, somewhere, is working on it.

  • Lance

    Waste of money all it is or will be is a Billion dollar clay pigeon for a MiG.

  • Marcelo

    Modern turbine UAVs are capable of staying 36 hrs on station at high altitude normal cruise (50-60k ft). Plus this UAV is intended to be air refueled. They have autonomy to take off in Boston, fly to England, patrol for at least 8 hrs, and return home. With air refueling, they can stay aloft for days at a time. With that kind of range, there is hardly any need for them to be based on smaller non carrier ships. They will actually have 3x the strike range of any manned aircraft any carrier on the planet has today.

  • morris wise

    Nations do not park nuclear warheads on their missiles, they are separated by miles. In an emergency special team are called out to transport and mount the nuclear bombs, that type of movement is tracked by satellite. It would be a waste of money to shoot a 50 million dollar ICBM missile loaded with conventional explosives into enemy territory; they are needed for the destruction of cities not automobiles.

  • Now to see 1 sqdn fly of UAVs, awesome,
    For Navy & Air Force units both.

  • Rabbit

    With all the advances in drone tech, it sure is an exciting time to be following defence. Seems like air dominance will still require a human touch for awhile yet, though.

  • OMEGATALON

    The mission for the X-47B might be something like attacking Iran’s nuclear facility with small tactical nuclear devices because the structures are too deep for the X-47B’s munitions to penetrate and with range in excess of 2100 nautical miles, the X-47B can be launched very far from Iran without anyone suspecting the impending strike especially if the X-47B is refueled in-air.

    • dddd

      As long as you can convince America that we can safely carry nuclear weapons on unmanned aircraft. I think it is inevitable.

  • tiger

    One day we will say this is how the Terminator & the Cylons got started. Sci Fi is not so fictional any more.

  • Guest

    As critical as I am about the idea that UAVs are anywhere near ready to truely replace manned fighters, this is great news and I am very interersted in this aircraft.This is a big step forward in making UAVs a viable weapon for actual warfare rather than just COIN and light CAS. These will give carriers the long range strike cababilities the A-12 was supposed to provide.

    And not to mention it looks very nice. I’m a sucker for stealth and flying wing designs. It actually looks like a mean fighting machine rather than a glorified RC plane with missiles hanging off the bottom.

    • dddd

      My main questions are 1) if it operates autonomously, can it adapt to changing circumstances in the course of battle 2) if operated by remote, is there a way to limit the probability that enemies can jam or even detect the signal. In regards to the second question, I think UAV’s working in tandem could relay signals from the carrier group in a line-of-sight pattern that would render detection by the enemy less likely, seeing as the signal can be very narrow and unidirectional, whereas a signal from a satellite is more prone to interference. Can anybody confirm this?

  • Travis Burke

    Thats pretty sweet. I love the look of a stealth plane. I saw a few while I was on a military tourism trip in Israel. Sidebar: The trip was awesome, we shot a lot of different kind of guns, everything from pistols, to sniper rifles, to shotguns, even got to throw a few grenades. We also learned a lot of special forces techniques and got to put them to the test with a paintball simulation. For christ’s sake, we even went skydiving and learned krav maga. we literally did everything on that trip except fly stealth fighter jet. basically, just check out the company i went with http://www.lionops.com

    • Mike

      Oh to be 19 years old again.

  • Mike West

    What type of fuel does this UAV use