The future of carrier-based warfare quietly took to the skies over the weekend as the U.S. Navy successfully conducted the first-ever flight of its vaunted X-47B unmanned aircraft at Edwards AFB. The tailless, fighter-sized drone aircraft, designed by Northrop Grumman for carrier-based takeoffs and landings, spent half an hour in the air late Friday executing basic navigation maneuvers and otherwise proving that its design is airworthy and ready for further development.
The flight took off just after 2 p.m. local time and lasted just 29 minutes, reaching an altitude of only 5,000 feet. But for designers at Northrop Grumman and the Navy, it marks an important milestone for unmanned flight. The X-47B is the precursor to what the Navy hopes will be a fleet of unmanned, combat-capable aircraft that can launch from the deck of an aircraft carrier to carry out a range of missions.
That, of course, is a big deal not just for the Navy but for the future of robotic aerial warfare, which thus far has been restricted to land-launched drones like the Predators and Reapers operating in Afghanistan and Iraq. The X-47B is different. Designed as a robotic strike aircraft, it is jet powered (Predators and Reapers are prop-powered) and will fly at much higher speeds than its surveillance-oriented counterparts. It is also designed for stealth, sporting a tailless design that cuts down on aerodynamic noise and a sleek, flying-wing design reminiscent of the F-117 Nighthawk.
It’s worth noting that the X-47B is different from the secret “Beast of Kandahar” stealth drone that keeps popping up in Afghanistan—they’re easy to confuse due to a likeness in appearance. Little is known about the RQ-170 Sentinel, but we do know that it has taken to the skies before. The X-47B is just now getting wind beneath its wings, with initial carrier trials slated for sometime in 2013.