X-47B Heads to Sea

By Colin Babb

The X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System demonstrator made its first catapult shot at an NAS Patuxent River ground facility on 29 November 2012.
(Photo by Kelly Schindler)

Just a few years past a century since Eugene Ely made the first takeoff of an aircraft from a ship, fully-capable unmanned Naval Aviation has come a bit closer to reality. In November and December 2012, two X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System (UCAS) demonstrators completed a series of successful sea-based and land-based tests.

On 29 November at NAS Patuxent River, Md., one demonstrator made its first steam-catapult launch, the first such launch on a standard carrier catapult by an unmanned aerial vehicle.

Two days before, the second demonstrator was lifted aboard USS Harry S. Truman (CVN 75) for a series of historic at-sea tests that ultimately will lead to a real catapult shot at sea later in the year. During several days in port and a 15-day underway period, the X-47B completed a series of taxi and communications tests, ensuring that the aircraft could be maneuvered around the flight deck by deck personnel.

Operators used a special device called a control display unit, an arm-mounted remote control that can both drive and fly the aircraft.

The second X-47B demonstrator spent several weeks at sea aboard USS Harry S. Truman (CVN 75) undergoing taxi tests on deck. An at-sea catapult shot is expected later in 2013.
(Photo by MC3 Kristina Young)

“Deck operators executed multiple handoffs, tight turns, and taxiing of the nose wheel over a cross deck pendant from a dead stop–a particularly challenging deck operator handling challenge,” said Capt. Jaime Engdahl, the Navy UCAS program manager.

More carrier tests are planned for the spring and summer of 2013.