On a clear day early next year, an unmanned aircraft painted in the dark gull gray of a Navy fighter jet will take off from a runway at Naval Air Station Patuxent River in Maryland, bank over the Chesapeake Bay and set a course toward an aircraft carrier, motoring several miles out over the Atlantic. As it approaches the carrier, the craft will open communication with air-traffic control, request landing clearance from the deck officers and establish a glide slope that accounts for wind velocity, ship speed and even the slight rolling of the ship’s deck. Pilots consider a carrier landing one of the hardest operations in all of flight. The X-47B will land without any pilot at all.
The X-47B is the world’s first autonomous warplane. From takeoff through landing, it flies with little or no direct control from human handlers. Although it is a prototype not intended for actual combat use—the Navy calls it a technology demonstrator—engineers designed it to slip into contested airspace, dodge antiaircraft defenses like cannons and surface-to-air missiles, and deliver strikes or perform reconnaissance. When it completes its mission early next year, the X-47B will be both the first tailless aircraft and the first unmanned one to ever land on a carrier. And it will mean that the Navy, armed with some future variant, will have the capability to order unmanned sorties from carrier groups anywhere in the world within hours of a clash.
The X-47B is also a big step forward in robotic flight. The U.S. military has roughly 10,000 unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), which ply the skies above places like Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and, sometimes, the U.S. Engineers call such aircraft man-in-the-loop systems, and humans typically control them remotely, whether from a ground base nearby or a command post a continent away. The X-47B is a man-on-the-loop system: While people retain control over the general mission, the moment-to-moment decisions are left to the aircraft’s robot brain.
Outside of flight, man-on-the-loop systems are becoming increasingly common. Scientists have been using autonomous probes to map the ocean floor for the past decade. The U.S. Department of Energy recently deployed autonomous ground vehicles to patrol the Nevada National Security Site, a former proving ground for nuclear weapons. And farmers are starting to use self-driving tractors to till fields and harvest crops. What sets the X-47B apart from those systems is the nature of its environment. Rather than a deserted waste site or an empty field, the X-47B is designed to operate on and around an active aircraft carrier.
After five years of development, engineers at Northrop Grumman and within the Navy’s Unmanned Combat Air Systems (UCAS) group have created a robot brain capable of operating in such a complex setting. It can process vast amounts of flight data, make near-instantaneous decisions and guide an aircraft to a flawless, squealing halt on the deck of a carrier. Now the designers face a different kind of challenge: training the aircraft to work with people.single page