In any developmental milestone, the X-47B made its first arrested landing aboard an aircraft carrier yesterday. This latest test, which comes after a successful arrested landing on an airstrip and a successful deployment from an aircraft carrier, may help signal a new era for the use of unmanned aircraft in military operations.
For months now, the US Navy has been testing the Unmanned Aerial Combat Air System – the first drone aircraft that requires only minimal human intervention – pushing the boundaries in the hopes of determining how far the new autonomous air system can go. And with this latest landing, they just proved that the X-47B is capable of being deployed and landing at sea.
Aircraft landings on a carrier are a tricky endeavor even for experienced pilots, as the ship’s flight deck is hardly spacious, and rises, falls, and sways with the ocean waves. To stop their forward momentum in the shortest distance possible, carrier aircraft have a hook on the underside of the fuselage that latches onto cables stretched across the flight deck. This means that pilots need to land precisely to grab the hook and come to a complete stop in time.
The test flight began when the drone took off from the Naval Air Station at Patuxent River, Md. and then flew to meet the USS George H.W. Bush at sea, a flight which took 35 minutes. Upon reaching the carrier, the same which it took off from this past May, it touched down and caught the 3 wire with its tailhook at a speed of 145 knots, coming to a dead stop in less than 350 feet. After the first landing, it was launched from the Bush’s catapult and then made a second arrested landing.
The Navy tweeted about the success shortly after it happened, and Ray Mabus – Secretary of the Navy – followed that up with a press statement:
The operational unmanned aircraft soon to be developed have the opportunity to radically change the way presence and combat power are delivered from our aircraft carriers.
Naturally, there is still plenty of testing likely to be done before such drones can be considered ready to go into combat zones. For example, perhaps, automated drone-to-drone refueling is scheduled for some time in 2014, another aspect of the UCAS the Navy is determined to try before deploying them in actual operations. Still, for fans and critics alike, this was a major step.
Which brings us to the darker side of this latest news. For many, a fleet of semi or fully-automated drones is a specter that induces serious terror. Earlier this year, the Obama administration sought to allay fears about the development of the X-47 and the ongoing use of UAVs in combat operations by claiming that steps would be taken to ensure that when it came to life and death decisions, a human would always be at the helm.
But of course, promises have been broken when it comes to the use of drones, which doesn’t inspire confidence here. Just eight days after the Obama Administration promised to cease clandestine operations where drones were used by the CIA to conduct operations in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, one such drone was used to kill Wali ur-Rehman – the second in command of the Pakistani Taliban. This was a direct violation of Obama’s promise that UAVs would be used solely against Al-Qaeda and other known anti-US terrorist groups outside of Afghanistan.
What’s more, the development of unmanned drones that are able to function with even less in the way of human oversight has only added to many people’s fear about how, where, and against whom these drones will be used. Much has gone on that the public is now aware of thanks to the fact that only a handful of people are needed to control them from remote locations. If human agency is further removed, what will this mean for oversight, transparency, and ensuring they are not turned on their own citizens?
But of course, it is important to point out that the X-47B is but an experimental precursor to actual production models of a design that’s yet to be determined. At this point, it is not farfetched to assume that preventative measures will be taken to ensure that no autonomous drone will ever be capable of firing its weapons without permission from someone in the chain of command, or that human control will still be needed during combat phases of an operation. Considering the potential for harm and the controversy involved, it simply makes sense.
But of course, when it comes to issues like these the words “trust us” and “don’t worry” are too often applied by those spearheading the development. Much like domestic surveillance and national security matters, concerned citizens are simply unwilling to accept the explanation that “this will never be used for evil” anymore. At this juncture, the public must stay involved and apprised, and measures instituted from the very beginning.
And be sure to check out this video of the X-47B making its first arrested landing. Regardless of the implications of this latest flight, you have to admit that it was pretty impressive: