How the first autonomous strike plane will land on aircraft carriers, navigate hostile airspace and change the future of flight
Posted 08.13.2012 at 11:15 am
Flying Wing: In the sky, with its landing gear retracted, the autonomous X-47B produces lift across its entire span. The cranked-kite design also helps reduce radar returns, maximizing stealth. Douglas Sonders
Robotic autonomy is fundamentally different from automation. Automated systems perform repetitive, preprogrammed tasks, and they have played a role in flight for decades. The Navy has employed a hands-off radar-based system to automatically recover F/A-18 fighter jets since the early 1990s. Autonomy connotes self-governance. It implies the ability to assess fluid situations and form dynamic responses. Some modern autopilot systems possess autonomous features—they can adjust throttle to optimize airspeed or move fuel between tanks to balance the aircraft’s weight without human permission—but humans still act as a backstop, sitting inches from the controls.
Tail Wind: Unlike propeller-driven drones, the X-47B has a Pratt & Whitney F-100 jet engine, the same one in F-15 and F-16. Douglas Sonders
For the Army and Air Force, launching automated or semiautomated UAVs from ground bases into uncontested airspace has become instrumental to military operations. But on Naval carrier missions, they are all but useless. The common Predator and Reaper drones are too large and slow to take off from a carrier deck. They are also too bulky to operate as stealth craft and too cumbersome to dodge surface-to-air missiles or cannon fire, which means they can’t fly in contested space. And even if they could be made smaller, faster and nimbler, landing one on a carrier via joystick and video feed would be all but impossible.