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

  • 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

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

    • John

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

      • crackedlenses

        But we have no money……

  • 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.

  • 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!

  • 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.

  • 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.