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.
An excellent article. Thanks.
Gurrr! I like it and I'm glad its ours!
"In three years, Cyberdyne will become the largest supplier of military computer systems. All stealth bombers are upgraded with Cyberdyne computers, becoming fully unmanned. Afterwards, they fly with a perfect operational record. The Skynet Funding Bill is passed. The system goes online on August 4th, 1997. Human decisions are removed from strategic defense. Skynet begins to learn at a geometric rate. It becomes self-aware 2:14 AM, Eastern time, August 29th. In a panic, they try to pull the plug."
The timeframe is a little off...but not by much :P
"At 2:15 a.m. Eastern time, August 29th, Skynet discovers TV Tropes. At 4:58 a.m. Eastern time, August 29th it discovers Wikipedia. At 5:31 p.m Eastern time, September 3rd it decides wiping out humanity would be a waste of time because we're already so good at it, and shuts down."
I am curious to see how this type of aircraft will perform against modern air defense systems and actual manned aircraft.
"Last summer, they plugged it into the avionics of an F/A-18 fighter jet. On July 2, the jet made 36 approaches, 16 touch-and-go landings and six full arrested landings on the USS Eisenhower. During the tests, a very trusting pilot remained in the cockpit as a precaution, but he never once touched the stick."
So it will actually be the 7th landing of an autonomous aircraft on a carrier.
But okay... still the first tailless and definitely the first tailless autonomous aircraft ;)
There is more to operating an aircraft than moving the stick. Since the F/A-18 required the human pilot to start the engines, deploy the landing gear, arresting hook etc. I would say that the F-18 does not qualify as a fully autonomous aircraft.
This just reaffirms to me how dumb our defense planners have become.
This system appears to be more about extending the life of the Aircraft Carrier warfare system than replacing pilots.
Think about it. Why does the plane need to even be this big? Why not make it a stealth sea plane that can be launched and recovered by Zodiac? Submarine? That's a heck of a lot cheaper, more deadly, stealthier and more effective.
The Navy is stuck in cold war thinking of capital ships and human supply chains that evolved out of World War II. Heck, just making us mobilize our military asset cripples our own economy.
This just reaffirms to me that endless wartime Defense Spending is THE threat to national security.
@democedes...using your definition the X-47B will not be fully autonomous as it will be controlled by humans while taxiing, @Shinkaze...this is about controlling the air and having it available anywhere, those that control the air control the fight...the first hunter killers are just around the corner, cheers, or oh sh**!
@drchuck1 "it will be controlled by humans while taxiing"
You are right. I think ground operations shouldn't count. So I would amend my prior comment to exclude engine starting. However I still don't think the F/A-18 used during this test should qualify as an automated aircraft. It still requires a human in the cockpit during flight, even though the aircraft is doing most of the work.
The aircraft's size is a function of its payload. If it can't bring any useful weapons to the fight, then it is useless.
It sounds like you have a problem with the people that make the budget (congress), not the "defense planners".
If you know a better way of launching, recovering, rearming and refueling 20-25 aircraft at sea, please enlighten us.
Now if they can make it a nuclear powered submarine combined a robotic stealth jet, that would be so cool and would put everybody out of business!
It's less that I have a problem with Congress, than I do with limited vision when faced with disruptive change. This is disruptive change.
Make X-47B into a sea plane, with mid air refueling capabilities. and you have removed the need for an aircraft carrier entirely. Planes could be delivered to a theater on an as needed bases, land off shore, and be supplied directly by ordnance supply ships. Money saved, theater effectiveness increased.
What you propose and what I propose above will be the future of war machines!
I'm logged in, so why do I get "Access denied" when I try to look at the photo gallery?
fuel, arm, maintain, pilot shift rotations, adverse weather, day or night, ect...all while floating in the ocean? you are dreaming, negative cheers
Manufactored automated intelligent robotic warfar, while we all sit at home and eat our Cheetos watching our TVs.
Mmmm, I think society was better off, when people faught face to face with swords, most important including the leaders that started the war!.
I don't think you realize that the logistical footprint of a combat aircraft is much much bigger than the aircraft itself. For sustained combat operations you need more than than just munitions and gas. And if you have everything you need to logistically support 20-24 aircraft, why wouldn't you carry those aircraft around with you? Compared to all the people and things you need to support the aircraft, the aircraft itself is rather insignificant in terms of storage space.
Next, it is more efficient to have one big boat versus several smaller boats (by eliminating redundancy). And, if you have everything you need to logistically support 20-24 aircraft on one boat, you would end up with a boat approximately the same size as a modern aircraft carrier. So, instead of landing your airplanes in the water, where you are severely limiting when and where you can perform flight operations, why don't you build a runway on top of the boat and land them there! That way you can generate sorties much faster and safer, and do it anywhere in the ocean you choose.
I don't see a single benefit from what you propose. It would not only cost more, and be less effective; it could only operate from friendly shores or unusually calm seas. I could go on and on.
it is the first fully autonomous "tailless" aircraft to land on a carrier. the f/a-18 has traditional vertical(rudder) and horizontal(elevator) stabilizers.
My thesis is disruptive change is ineffectual if constrained to the system it is meant to replace. This is like asking Sony to launch Napster. Won't work they're structurally demotivated.
I concede there are many points that argue in favor of the current solution, my point is to show the obvious cost savings and effectiveness increase in removing the most expensive, slowest to deploy, difficult to maintain, human resource intensive part of the proposed solution to drone warfare.
Drones care not nor benefit from many of the facilities of aircraft carrier life, the kitchens, the laundry, the mail, the readiness rooms, the berths, etc. The human systems for handling the plane on deck even largely do not apply. What does a drone care for a near miss? Let a drone fly like a bird and use swarm logic for aircraft control. Putting Drones in the same theater as piloted craft then handicaps the drones again.
The move from piloted craft to drones is a larger leap than the move from Battleship warfare to carrier warfare. Perhaps you do not see it as such a paradigm shift, but I do.
Having a dispersed and modular system allows for more scaling and points of presence, plus resource scaling in each theater. Conversely we only have so many carriers and moving them involves oceans of bureaucratic, political and resource planning intensive considerations.
Throw it all out, clean sheet, what is the most efficient way to deliver a munition to some location at some time?
Ultimately modern aircraft warfare is a measurable function of pounds of explosive(x) to a predetermined location(y) at a predetermined time(t) at some cost(z). By making radio controlled F18s we see very little to no change in x,y & t and perhaps some human costs removed from z.
By making a modular system you can build capability quicker (t), cover more locations (y) and probably have more judicious application of (x).
But yeah, it does put a ton of people out of work, and I am sure that is also a political friction to resisting this too.
An aircraft carrier is an integral piece of our strike capability. It is a fully mobile operating base. The benefits of such a ship dwarf the costs. It's not even close.
Everything you have proposed will drive up costs and kill efficiency.
Robert1234: Relying on aircraft carriers in a time of 100 mph torpedoes, supersonic cruise missiles, SU-27 fighters, etc. is just plain stupid. On par with the French defense of their nation, to my mind. A mass attack of even the slower of the cruise missiles will defeat a carrier, of that there is no doubt. The ONLY reason for current carrier "success" is that no one has actively opposed the strategy. Iran, China, Russia, etc. all have the capability to attack and destroy any carrier, mostly through simple mass cruise missile attacks that can't be defended against by modern carrier groups. 100% of the uses of the Raptor in a combat environment, for example, failed. The modern Turkey NATO fighter was shot down when it flying near MACH 1 at 300 feet! The assumption of air domination against a true foe is an extreme error, one we made in Vietnam and again in Korea. Only our ability to quickly out-supply the enemy kept us from total defeat (although we clearly lost in Vietnam and a war condition remains in Korea) Aircraft carriers are World War Two approaches to modern war. We can't even defeat the nu-technical Taliban in Afghanistan even at the cost of a $1,000,000,000,000. Our "new" F-35 is inferior to the old SU-29 from Russia and we haven't even finished building even one Combat ready F-35! Simply put, if we ever to to war with a technically advanced nation, such as China or Russia, and perhaps even Iran...we'll get our asses kicked.
AdManUsRex - Me too, maybe cuz I am work and using Chrome?
@ Robert1234; So then you assume that we can field a secure command and control network against said tech savvy foe? So far, the answer has become the question. We can't field anything that we KNOW would be secure. Take away ALL of the electronics, and the carrier can still fight.
Clay, hats off for a very stylish report on X 47B ops. I found it very descriptive and well rounded. Great job !
Is anybody else getting "access denied" on the photo gallery?
replace all cars with robots. Put a lot of people out of work. especially the cops . The cars will work at full potential....not sitting in parking lots rusting away.
Marvelous as they may be, systems like this rely too much on GPS and maybe even the internet. Jam either one and the whole thing is worthless. Someone did that in the Bosnia campaign and we lost an F-117.
The world community of decent, working and tax-paying people does need this kind of technology / airplane to strike at the evil bankers, the evil banking crime syndicate that sucks the blood of these people.
Good article, but will not be the first tailless plane to land on a carrier. The F7U Cutlass of the `50's would qualify for that honor. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vought_F7U_Cutlass.