For some time, the US Navy has been conducting tests on a new stealth drone known as the X-47B Unmanned Aerial Combat System. A vast improvement over earlier generations of drones like the Predator and the Reaper, this new vehicle combines jet propulsion, autonomous control, and a stealthy fuselage in one package, making it the most advanced unmanned aerial vehicle in the world to date.
In its latest trials, the drone completed a series of test trials which were in preparation for its first take off and landing from an aircraft carrier. This consisted of seeing whether or not the drone had any “sea legs” – basically, if it is capable of fitting on a carrier deck and remaining in place while the ship is performing maneuvers at sea.
All of this took place over the course of the past few weeks aboard the USS Harry S. Truman, where a prototype of the X-47B was towed by flight deck tractors, taxied on the flight deck, and had its digital engine controls tried out amidst the rampant electromagnetic fields that are common on a carrier. This last aspect was of particular concern, as developers and naval personnel weren’t sure if the carrier’s radars would interfere with the drone’s remote controls.
According to Mike Mackey, the program director for Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems, the most hostile electromagnetic environment on Earth happens to be “on the deck of a Nimitz class Navy aircraft carrier”. By proving that it can fit and function aboard, the navy now knows with some certainty that they will be able to deploy these drones to all corners of the world to take part in military actions, reconnaissance, and ongoing anti-terrorism efforts.
Naturally, this and other developments relating to the X-47B have got many people feeling nervous. Unlike the Predator and Reaper, this new class of UAV is autonomous and not controlled by a remote operator. No telling how this might fit in with Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter recent promise that measures will be taken to ensure that all killer robots will have a human at the helm. Could it be that all that was merely a political promise? For shame!
Plans to conduct the first take off and carrier landing are scheduled for some time in 2013. By 2014, they also hope to have successfully conducted an autonomous aerial refueling of the craft as well. Anyone feel scared? I kind of feel scared…