We’ve mentioned the US Navy’s X-47B program before in these pages. It’s a technology demonstrator rather than a prototype of a production aircraft, designed to test the operation of unmanned aerial vehicles on board and in the airspace around aircraft carriers. If it works as planned, the Navy intends to develop a successor, more capable airframe under the UCLASS program, to become operational in the 2020’s.
Last year the X-47B spent several weeks at sea aboard a carrier, not flying from it (yet) but ‘learning’ to taxi around a flight deck. This was an important milestone, as carrier decks are crowded, dangerous places. The aircraft controllers had to learn to maneuver the UAV in, around and among other aircraft landing, taking off, being serviced, refueled and rearmed, and so on; and the flight deck crew had to learn how to handle it compared to the manned aircraft with which they normally work. The tests were apparently successful.
That’s an amazing achievement, if you think about all the computer hardware and software (including so-called ‘artificial intelligence‘ systems) that made it possible. The objective is to have the X-47B (and its UCLASS successors) make autonomous, fully automatic landings on carriers in any weather conditions, day or night, without human intervention. This was a big step forward towards achieving that goal. Congratulations to all concerned.