Thinking Through the Brave New World of Carrier-Based Drones

Back in November the U.S. Navy craned an X-47B, officially labeled an “unmanned combat air system,” aboard the USS Harry S. Truman (CVN 75) for the drone’s first carrier-based testing.

And nothing says “brave new world” like the thought of drone’s taxiing around the flight deck alongside manned aircraft during regular cyclic ops.  Keeping 25 airplanes from smashing into each other before launch is hard enough with pilots in the loop; what will the absence of them do to the Handler’s pucker factor?

Enter the Control Display Unit.  The CDU is the device that allows operators on the flight deck to control the X-47.  The CDU is a wireless handheld device that controls thrust, brakes, and nosewheel steering to maneuver the aircraft wherever it needs to go around the flight deck.

So if we consider how current generation manned aircraft make it from start up to the cat, we can get a sense of how an unmanned aircraft would do the same.

Once the X-47 is powered up and ready to taxi (let’s assume the squadron maintainers — the green shirts — perform that function) a taxi director — a yellow shirt — would wander over with CDU in hand.  So instead of directing a pilot at the controls using hand signals, the yellow shirt simply takes control of the drone and taxis it wherever he desires.

Once the X-47 is spotted on the catapult and ready for launch control would go to . . . the Air Boss in the tower? . . . the mission drone pilots located in a ready room? . . . guys with joysticks in the back of an airborne E-2D?

So somebody controls the drone for the duration of the mission, or several operators control the drone for the duration of a mission.  (You can imagine a “black op” where a regular Navy drone driver has to give control to a CIA drone driver for a bit, and once Bad Guy No. 1 is taken out, the regular Navy guy takes control back.) 

But does that same mission control guy land the X-47 back on the carrier?  Let’s assume he or she doesn’t.  And then once the drone successfully traps (will drone drivers hate flying at night as much as human ones do?) then control goes back to the yellow shirt again.  And once in the chocks, the green shirt shuts the unmanned bird down.

Whew.  That’s a lot of coordination.

And when you say “wireless” controller the first thing that comes to mind is electromagnetic interference, trons so strong and numerous that they have been known to inflate aviators’ life preservers while they were manning up.  What lessons will we learn the hard way when we crank up all the ship’s antennas and add a dozen more X-47s to the mix?

Brave new world, indeed.

  • JJ6000

    New challenges yes, but certainly not anything unachievable

    • shawn1999

      Why do they need wireless controllers at all?
      1) Replace the manual effort of taxiing with a algorithmic program that mixes “follow the line” programing (like the RC toys that follow the line your kid draws) with collision avoidance (like the RC vacuum that cleans your carpets, or the RC mop that cleans your floors).
      2) Launch should go much easier as well- Catapult launch initiates a program which calculates heading/speed/etc and automatically launches the bird, gets it up to operation altitude and out of the way of flight ops then holds position while control is transferred to your drone pilot.Voila- No more Wireless issues on taxi/take off
      3) Normal flight ops proceed
      4) Ship-board ATC gives the bird the “all clear” for landing. Its on-board computers calculate heading/speed/etc. much as it did on take off and lands perfectly- rain or shine, day or night- the taxis off the area (much like it did to get to take off position).

      As for the “human verse machine” debate, we must remember that for every machine that replaces a human’s task, we have 2-3 humans which must now take care of the machine to keep it doing what it does (both logical programmers and physical maintenance)

  • LtKitty

    Aye, brave new world. But worry not, Uncle Sam’s finest have a knack for getting sh** done.

  • EW3

    “Keeping 25 airplanes from smashing into each other before launch is hard enough with pilots in the loop; what will the absence of them do to the Handler’s pucker factor?”

    That’s a funny way to look at things.
    Having 25 human pilots who are some of the most A++ types on the planet and always know what is right is the hard part.
    25 UAVs, which are predictable and don’t have egos is easy by comparison. Suspect they will also have an on/off switch.

    • drone

      My thoughts exactly! We have smart bombs that can post themselves through a window and nobody is saying “that’s great, but I would have preferred a highly trained human pilot performing the same mission with unguided bombs”.

      In countless other areas of our lives we have grown to accept the fact that we can create machines that can do some jobs thousands of times better than a human would. Who would argue today that a human switchboard operator would be more efficient than an automated system? We should hold on to the pride of being able to dream up and manufacturethese systems, but lose the conceit of imagining that we will always be more capable than our creations.

      • Seriously?

        So what happens when you run out of those types of bombs in an area of operations? I’m sure that EW3 can put the thing on the thing and walk away a war hero!

        • drone

          Surely a UCAV with target location, velocity, atmospheric and position inputs can calculate the exact release point for a dumb bomb much better than a human pilot can. Indeed they might one day get it so precise that guided bombs would not be needed for such operations where one did not need to stand-off the target.

          • blight_

            You can only enhance the CEP of a dumb bomb so much without GPS guidance and fins for self-correction…short of flying directly at the target and releasing at very close range (which is why Iron Hand missions failed so miserably in Vietnam?)

          • Seriously?

            There are a lot of technical challenges for that to happen with great consistency, but could it happen one day…sure. Just not anytime soon. Also, how much are you willing to spend on each UCAV and how many are you willing to lose?

  • Lance

    BAD idea!!!!!!!!!!

    Drone cannot replace the manned fighter. They are not as fast in fighting or quick to think. They cannot be as reliable nor as fast to be recalled in a mission. While it may help in low intensity combat. For real war they cannot do the same as a manned F-18EF!!!!

    • drone

      The issues you raised are easily countered by using remotely piloted drones as opposed to autonomous ones (and the autonomous ones will soon be able to outperform humans anyway.)

      As to your manned F-18EF, an small autonomous stealth drone with BVR capable missiles would shoot it down before the human pilots would even be aware of its existence.

      • Kole

        Unless ECM cuts off any satellite signal the drone needs… aka RQ-170.

      • NathanS

        Even with the best satellite technology, wireless communication over long distances = latency. Also UAV pilots generally have lower situational awareness due to bandwidth issues. For these reasons the current generation of UAVs (and probably the next) cannot compete with current best-of-breed manned fighter platforms.

        They do have some advantages over older generation fighters:
        – Stealth means that an opponent may not know the UAV is there
        – With the agility of modern missile technology capable of high off-bore angle shots may soon make dog-fighting obsolete anyway
        – Many modern air-engagements are now “beyond the horizon” anyway

        For this reason even the current breed can be a threat to older fighter aircraft.

        I disagree with Lance in one way; an unmanned platform potentially can have much faster reflexes and can calculate contingencies at a much faster rate than a human. Consider chess – a game with near infinite possibilities. Only a decade ago to challenge the grand-masters, IBM needed a specialized super-computer and software. Today your average computer with off-the-shelf software can match it with grand masters, and on average need much less time to calculate a move.

        • Kole

          But that’s only possible if the drone is autonomous. And, something that is autonomous is very vulnerable to ECM. It basically becomes AI, and something with AI is very much a headless chicken without some group of operators monitoring it. Anytime electricity is used for autonomous functions, the aircraft will rely on Inertial data from the past, unless it wants to tell the world where it is with a satellite. With this, all an adversary has to do is create an “ECM Cloud” to completely fry the drones systems. Several of our drones have been lost in Iran because they actually have a “cyber-squad.” Even the Taliban can download an app that shows current drone feeds. Quite sad.

        • tiger

          The F-22 are only carrying Aim 9’s .Your long rang shot is off the table.

          • Kole

            What long range shot? I said ECM, and it has downed our drones before.

    • DevilDogOIF1

      Correct, drones have a very diminished situational awareness. This aircraft has a different purpose than an F/A-18. The purpose of this drone is to loiter in contested airspace (read: the skies over China) and attack land targets. This platform is a hybrid between a Global Hawk and the Predator. Automated (it will land itself in the carrier) and capable of dropping ordinance on a target.

      It will be very interesting to see how these platforms are integrated into the offensive mission. Go America!!

    • Bill Kude

      Just because the presant unmaned fighters are “not as fast in fighting or quick to think” don’t assume that the situation will be that way forever more! As an engineer, we can fix that

    • tiger

      Sorry, but those points are false. Sensors & computers are as fast as a over worked human. Are more reliable ( they need no sleep, don’t do drugs, & take more G’s). Your Super Hornet is still a jack of all trades & Master of none fighter.

  • stephen russell

    See 2005 movie Stealth since it shows manned & drones in combat.
    Used mockup for carrier pics etc.
    Good movie

    • NeoconBrony

      No it wasn’t, that movie sucked.

      • we chan

        Wu Dang (2012)

        good chinese movie you like I think mabye i anwser we make happy

      • Thomas L. Nielsen

        “No it wasn’t, that movie sucked”.

        Sucked? Whaddayamean “sucked”? That movie had (in no particular order):
        – Jessica Biel
        – Cool (albeit non-existent) aircraft
        – The MP7
        – Jessica Biel with an MP7

        “Sucked”? I have no idea what you mean ( :-) ).

        Regards & all,

        Thomas L. Nielsen

        • crackedlenses

          It’s a movie about futuristic Navy fighters, and half your post goes to the MP7?

          • Thomas L. Nielsen

            Yep….and Jessica Biel.

            Regards & all,

            Thomas L. Nielsen

    • Jenika

      The operant word here is “movie.” That’s not where you should be getting your info.

      • Thomas L. Nielsen

        Oh, come on…Reality’s a total gyp!

        Regards & all,

        Thomas L. Nielsen

        • Jenika

          All you have as a reply is a racist comment? Why bother “replying.”

          • Matt

            How is that even remotely racist? Also, he just said he enjoyed Stealth not that he saw it as a documentary…

          • Jenika

            He said “reality is a total gyp.” That is putting down gypsies.

          • blight_

            I thought those folks identified themselves as Roma/Romani?

          • Jenika

            True, they do but Nelson used the racist term “I got gypped”.
            This is referring to gypsies as “lying and thieving.” This is similar to “I got jewed” (short changed). The Gypsies are a proud and unique people whose numbers were decimated by Hitler. I am sure Nelson didn’t realize that “gypped” was a racist term.

  • BlackOwl18E

    Drone’s will definitely have a place in the Navy, but it will be a long time before they can replace manned pilots. Skilled aviators with excellent warplanes like the Super Hornet are going to be the best for warfare. As for the difficulty of integrating drones into the carrier environment, I’m confident that there’s nothing that the U.S. Navy can’t handle.

    • Nadnerbus

      My thoughts are the same. If you need a bomb truck orbiting a battlefield to deliver a JDAM on command from ground forces, these things seem like a pretty good option. Longer loiter time, no pilots to get bored, have to pee. Plug in the GPS coordinates, and cut one loose.

      If you need to go in to a access denial type area against a first world power on day one of a conflict, they might still have their place, stealthy and all. But I want lots of humans with lots of flying experience there too to make the on-the-fly decisions. It will be a while before drones can really replace that kind of expertise. I have a feeling they might not ever completely replace pilots in the c0ckpit.

      • drone

        I would be curious to hear what sort of on-the-fly decisions a manned pilot would be able to take vis a vis an autonomous system, especially one with the appropriate sensors to relay relevant information back to base and the ability to receive further commands.

        Imagine a hijacked plane full of schoolchildren was flying towards the centre of New York, and a human pilot was ordered to shoot it down. He makes a decision not to follow orders, seeing the children in the windows, so the plane is allowed to fly into a skyscraper and kill thousands of innocents.

        He might have made a moral choice, but it was not the choice of his superiors and caused much greater loss of life and damage than was inevitable. People are awesome, but they are also prone to errors of judgement or physical impairment. To assume that a properly configured robot would be unable to do the same job better lacks perspective.

        • blight_

          If it’s a teleoperated drone, there’s still a human operator on the other side.

          That said, the limits of human willingness to take life in an abstract way are well known to the Strategic Rocket Forces and the Air Force. The mission to launch ICBMs requires an abstract hand.

          • tiger

            Fail safe, Dr. Strangelove, Crimson tide…………..

            If I get the call, I’m putting on the cowboy hat & flying to the Primary.

  • we chan

    We no buy many only 2 plus test model maybe use now more job later iran stealth fighter mo match this design ok i think now

    • whatever

      do you even understand your own “sentence”???

      you might want to write in your native language and then use Google’s translator.

  • Roy Smith

    I thought that this UCAV would assume the job that was lost when we retired our A-6 Intruders. I thought that that was its only purpose.

    • Rob C

      No its more than that. Its to keep human pilots out harms way. Also politicians have warmed to this because they don’t have worry about hearing from their voters that they’re putting US lives at risk.

    • tiger

      They can do other missions. ASW & Tanker are huge mission needs.

  • What some fail to understand is that the vast majority of the operations, from launch to landing, and most of what occurs in between, will be fully automated. This would include manoeuvrings on deck as well except for the fact that there are still manned craft present on the flight deck to contend with. Autonomous operations of vehicles in confined, difficult spaces has been done for some time in Australian shipping ports and New Zealand warehouses. Fully autonomous operations of UAS are also standard practice. Landing at night, in pitch darkness and foul weather, is far easier for an automated system with near instantaneous feedback of multiple sensors. The “pilot” is essentially there for when things go wrong in the vehicle and to oversea the operations when a human decision making process is required. The major issue with UAS, which has been identified for a very long time, is one of data link vulnerability. The US has already experienced this several times and are well aware of it. Hence the natural drive towards full autonomy of such systems. Its basic evolution.

    • Beno

      Absolutely agree that this point seems to have been slightly missed by the author. Additionally;

      “Air Boss in the tower? … the mission drone pilots located in a ready room? … guys with joysticks in the back of an airborne E-2D? ”

      Why on earth do we think the pilots will be anywhere near the carrier? They will be on rotation in the continental US most likely. Particularly by the time we get to 40 UCAS flying long duration strike missions.

      This is “proper brave new world” time. A whole new paradigm. It going to take a while for everyone to really get their heads round and see ALL the benefits I suggest.

      • Leroy

        Yep right up tot he point where some MIT drop out works out how to hack a secure datalink no one thought off, and having decide that isreal is bad , due all the discussions he has had on the NET , hijacks a drone and levels part of a city for Lutlz

        • NathanS

          Right… and a pilot has never gone AWOL and defected?

          Encryption technology is getting to the point where the hackers are clearly losing. To do a brute-force attack on common off-the-shelf encryption would take the worlds fastest super-computer a billion-billion years to do. It is true that there are some encryption algorithms where flaws have recently been found, but these have been quickly patched. Military encryption has codes that switch rapidly, so are near on impossible to hack. The weakest link when it comes to security is actually people.

          And besides, in order to over-ride a UAVs control you would need to be in territory where you have the infrastructure to over-power the military signal. This is not easily done, and means having control of very powerful transmitters. This situation isn’t going to occur in friendly territory.

          Besides, look at it this way, if our military encryption is broken then UAVs will be the absolute least of our concerns.

    • Jenika

      Unforunately you are right. The drones, if anyone has been paying attention, are slowly replacing combat soldiers: Easier to kill, cheaper to use, no hue and cry about our rising American body count and blown off limbs (less expenditure by the VA hospitals), yes, a nice and tidy way to kil people with minimum PTSD. And the Drones are not just to kill, they are invading civilian’s privacy on the home front. Eventually, drones will be ubiquitous over our cities and countryside – 1984 – 30 years later.

  • Phono

    wow, it just looks that awesome!
    nice Picture

  • drone

    What about the brave new world of stealth sea-skimming anti-ship missiles that could send the entire ship and its complement of drones to the bottom? Whither then the superiority of human pilots over such a missile’s basic brain?

    • Cane

      You have to get close enough to the ship for that to work first. MUCH easier said then done when dealing with layered defense.

      • drone

        In the same way defenses are evolving, so are the missiles themselves. It is much easier for an enemy to launch 30 autonomous drones to overwhelm the layered defense that to send a single manned aircraft with a proprly trained crew, and the latter would have very little chance of survival.

    • blight_

      Brave new world of 100km ranged missiles, you mean?

      Sounds like hell for those Littoral Combat Tin Cans.

      I would worry more about Russian cruise missiles…the non-export ones.

      • drone

        You mean the Chinese ICBMs?

        • blight_

          Whoops. MTCR is geared towards BM’s. Classes of /ballistic/ missiles are controlled by MTCR and INF. Export Iskander ballistic missiles are kept below MTCR regs. Russian military inventory Iskanders exceed the MTCR regs because they’re not intended for proliferation.

          I imagine MTCR/INF/other arms control treaties will be updated to mention cruise missiles and UAVs as potential WMD delivery devices. The other obvious reason for low anti-ship missile range is volume budget in a cruise missile container: a slow missile has long range, a fast missile has short range, and all to avoid eating into payload.

        • whatever

          100km missiles are by definition not ICBMs. Those are just anti-ship cruise missiles. Those China has reportedly succeeded in developing both anti-ship ballistic missiles and long-range anti-ship cruise missiles.

      • EW3

        Having served on a 2000 ton DE in the north atlantic in the early 70s (trip to mumansk in 72) it was know we were toast.

        We did it anyway.

        • blight_

          True. A tin can is cheaper than losing a carrier; but we can’t even produce tin cans.

          • tiger

            Not at a billion a pop. Your right.

    • John

      But you forgot about the anti-missile lasers we’ll have.

      • crackedlenses

        But we have no money……

        • whatever

          But Uncle Sam is the world’s leading “expert” in stealing money (among many other things) from Americans and others around the globe, who are generally too dumb to realize it.

          • crackedlenses
  • Tad

    No problem. Just replace the Handlers, Maintainers, Air Boss, etc…., all the way up to the captain of the ship with specialized handler, air boss and captain drones!

    • tiger

      This is how the Cylons get started.

  • DC2 Jennings

    Don’t worry Ward, I am sure they will make a compartment in the back to stick the RIO in……. And from what I read the landing is automatic, so no worries with night traps.


  • Tom

    I think the obvious solution is use manned equipment to move the aircraft while they are on the deck of the carrier, there is no reason they need to be autonomous while on the deck of the carrier. I would think a simple electric tug with a human operator controlling it with an attached controller (i.e, not a big tractor with the operator sitting in or on it, but rather, the operator standing beside it with an attached controller) would work fine, think the ‘tugs’ you see in the parking lots of grocery stores they use to move grocery carts.

  • Tribulationtime

    Yes a human can disobey a wrong intruction and thus avoid accidents. A full new way to manage the deck is needed if you want to use drones. Maybe develop differents “windows” of launch given that current drone seems be usefull for attack waves only. I mean i don´t belive UCAVS doing CAPs, Interceptions, scrambles or emergecy “buddy-tanker” sortie. Maybe, Rebuffising decommised Tarawa class (or something like that) for UCAVS squadrons only. My opinion is that the money for drones would be used to “squeeze” F/A-18E/F performance.

  • tom
  • tom
  • torrance

    The credibility of this site goes to hell when you use the word “drone” to describe a Remotely Piloted Vehicle or Unmanned Vehicle. I realize that’s what the Hipsters (not) at Time et al are doing but this is supposed to be an Industry rag.

    • Jenika

      Instead of using the word “Drone,” or its longer equivalent, we can simply call them KILLER MACHINES. You guys get lost in your “who can talk the most military jargon”
      and forget that these are mass killing machines – mostly aimed at civilians to demoralize those “terrorists.” They don’t have names, kids, mothers, wives – they are “just the terrorists.”

  • J. Fonda

    The worse thing that could happen is that one of these UAV’s might launch a missle on deck, striking another aircraft, setting off a series of explosions that might almost sink an aircraft carrier….. On, no, wait…. that was John McCain!

    • Guest

      No the worst thing that could happen is some whiny stank would complain about our armed forces when they’re ordered to work. Oh no, (as the smart aleck punk would say) …that’s you.

      • whatever

        Why are you being so whiny about a totally legit and harmless post?

        Are you always complaining about things like that?

    • whatever

      In defense of John McCain, he was never known for his intelligence. It’s still true to this day. So whoever kept McCain as a pilot ought to share a big chunk of the responsibilities for McCain’s mishaps.

  • Frankenator

    The author should really takes a little bit of time to understand how this aircraft operates, i.e., autonomous vs remotely piloted, before publishing an article like this. That is just plain irresponsible. This clueless author has published a citeable source that is full of inaccuracies. Most of the comments are absurd as well, based on absolute naivety of aircraft CONOPS, performance, mission requirements, and capabilities for either manned or unmanned aircraft.

    • Guest

      An unfortunate sign of the times Frank, everybody’s a Jane Fonda these days.

  • Paul

    How much longer will it be till the USAF modifies their global, high endurance drones for low orbit capability? Once achieved, a whole flock of drones could be assigned to numerous ‘hot spots’ & be ‘on tap’ in less time than carrier deployment. Does anyone recall the cost of operating a carrier in combat arenas? It’s quite expensive daily. Positioning drones in low orbit globally would be a fraction of carrier deployment/operational cost. Who knows………such an eventuality may even antiquate the carrier.

  • Nickuru

    This technology might make sense to politicians and further the interests of corporate executive bonuses, but from a military point of view this is a useless waste of taxpayers’s money

  • blight_

    Bouncing communications from a carrier to a satellite (or some kind of relay UAV) to the drone will have less latency than using satellite relays from Creech to a drone on the other side of the planet.

    I’ve not seen much details on how they intend to teleoperate. I assume it would be off the carrier, but…

  • Black shoe Bosun

    Wow a seven or eight month cruise with no Nasal radiators sounds ok to me!

  • uncle bill

    I just think that cockpit cockpit cockpit cockpit cockpit cockpit.