UCAS-D Makes History With Unmanned Carrier Launch


2013-05-15 By Brett Davis

The X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System Demonstrator (UCAS-D) made its debut aircraft carrier launch from USS George H.W. Bush on 14 May, bringing unmanned carrier aviation a big step closer to reality.

The carrier, CVN 77, was off the coast of Virginia for the long-awaited launch.

“Today we saw a small, but significant pixel in the future picture of our Navy as we begin integration of unmanned systems into arguably the most complex warfighting environment that exists today: the flight deck of a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier,” says Vice Adm. David Buss, commander, Naval Air Forces.

X47B flight. Credit: USN

The X-47B launched from the deck at 11:18 a.m., executed several planned low approaches to the carrier and safely transited across the Chesapeake Bay to land at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Md., after flying for 65 minutes.

Buss said the launch is a “watershed event” and predicted that future air bosses will have a photo of the X-47B behind their desks, just as he has a photo of pioneer Eugene Ely’s first landing on a deck of a ship in 1911.

The flight team also showed that the X-47B, built by Northrop Grumman, could navigate within the controlled airspace of an aircraft carrier at sea and pass control of the vehicle from an operator on the carrier to one located on land.

“The flight today demonstrated that the X-47B is capable of operation from a carrier, hand-off from one mission control station to another, flight through the national airspace, and recovery at another location without degradation in safety or precision,” says Matt Funk, the lead test engineer for the Navy UCAS program.

Over the next few weeks, the X-47B aircraft will fly approaches to the ship multiple times and eventually land on the flight deck, says Navy UCAS Program Manager Capt. Jaime Engdahl. 

The UCAS team will conduct additional shore-based testing with the X-47B at NAS Patuxent River, Md., in coming months before the final carrier-based arrested landing demonstration later this summer.

For another look at the flight see the article by our colleagues on Breaking Defense: