Until its first real carrier flight early next year, engineers at Pax River will run the X-47B through tests on the mock carrier deck, practicing catapults and arrested stops under a variety of conditions and with carrier personnel. At the same time, air-traffic controllers, air bosses and LSOs will run through virtual takeoff and landing scenarios in the simulation rooms, building the experience, confidence and trust that they will need for a successful operation. After completing the carrier landing, the X-47B will return to Pax River to train for the next milestone: an autonomous midflight refueling, which is scheduled for 2014.
At the moment, the X-47B program is scheduled to end sometime after its successful autonomous midflight refueling. It’s uncertain what will happen then. The Navy will not discuss plans for the prototype other than to say it will never see active duty. Each of its two weapons bays could carry a 2,000-pound bomb, but neither ever will; one is currently filled with data-gathering instruments and the other is empty. And the X-47B still has room for improvements. It cannot (yet) perceive hand signals or other visual cues, so humans need to control it directly during taxi and deck operations.
Yet even if the X-47B never develops beyond a technology demonstrator, the system that governs it could have a lasting impact on flight. Designers will almost certainly integrate something like it into future military aircraft and perhaps into commercial aircraft as well. In February Congress approved a four-year, $63-billion budget to implement the NextGen program, a plan from the Federal Aviation Administration to upgrade and digitize America’s national airspace, much as the Navy is digitizing the airspace around its aircraft carriers. In NextGen, engineers would replace radar with GPS. Planes would communicate over a data link with towers and other aircraft, both manned and unmanned (the budget includes a mandate to integrate civilian drones into the national airspace by 2015). The NextGen system could allow pilots to choose more-direct flight paths between destinations, reducing flight times and increasing efficiency.
Engineers have already proved that the X-47B’s autonomous system can pilot a conventional 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.
Clay Dillow is contributing writer at Popsci.com. His most recent story for Popular Science, in June, was about a more efficient helicopter engine.single page
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.