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Thinking Through the Brave New World of Carrier-Based Drones

by Ward Carroll on February 18, 2013

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.

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