The photos aviation nerds have been waiting years to see are finally here. These images of the X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System-Demonstrator aboard the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman mark the start of a new era in naval aviation -- unmanned, fighter-sized jets operating aboard carriers.
The stealthy Northrop Grumman-made X-47B is a concept jet designed to prove that it's possible to operated an unmanned, autonomous strike and reconnaissance jet from aircraft carriers.
These Nov. 9 photos show an X-47B being used aboard Truman to test the jet's ability to follow the directions of aircraft directors (the guys in yellow jackets who tell planes and helos where to go on a carrier) on the ship's flight deck. This is one of several tricky parts of putting a UAV on a ship; making sure it can safely and efficiently taxi on the incredibly crowded and dangerous 4.5 acres of rolling, pitching and busy floating airport.
(Among the little details that go into this are things like making sure the jet can stop before crashing into something if its tow tractor fails. Right now, maintenance technicians sit in the cockpits of manned aircraft whenever they are moved aboard a carrier without a pilot aboard, ready to stomp on the planes' brakes in case they suddenly start rolling uncontrollably. Betcha didn't think of that detail.)
With the X-47B, aircraft handlers used a remote control system that was strapped aboard their arms to control the plane aboard the flight deck.
Per a Navy press release:
Gerrit Everson, one of the operators who controlled the X-47B, said the UCAS demonstrator displayed excellent integration with Truman's flight deck.
"With the CDU, we followed the aircraft director's signals to move the aircraft left or right, over the arresting wire, to and from the catapults and to various spotting positions," said Everson. "These tests proved that we can taxi the X-47B with the precision that an aircraft carrier's flight deck requires."
The next step in the X-47Bs testing will be launching it from the Truman's catapults and then landing it aboard the ship. The second task will be accomplished using automatic flight control systems that allow the jet to communicate automatically with computers aboard the ship. This means that it receives permission from the ship's air traffic controllers to enter the landing pattern and then guides itself in using data from the ship without any human input. (The Navy successfully tested this tech using an F/A-18 Hornet in 2011)
X-47B is a precursor to something called Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS); a program aimed at fielding a stealthy carrier jet capable of doing everything from aerial refueling to reconnaissance and strike missions over heavily defended airspace by the end of this decade. Northrop, Lockheed Martin, Boeing and Predator UAV-maker General Atomics all have designs in the works for when the Navy kicks off its contest for UCLASS.
This has been quite a month for stealthy UAVs around the globe. On Dec. 1, France's Dassault Aviation flew its terribly named nEUROn stealth attack drone for the first time. It's worth pointing out that the nEUROn has a twin-wheeled nose landing gear, something that's almost always associated with naval fighter jets due to the need for it to withstand the stresses of carrier landings. It's also worth pointing out that France is one of the few nations on earth that has a carrier large enough to operate catapult launched fighter jets.
Click through the jump for more photos.