Unmanned combat aircraft makes first landing at sea

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A drone designed for aircraft carrier operations has successfully landed on the deck of the USS George H.W. Bush, an event that marks a new milestone for unmanned combat air systems (UCAS).

Northrop Grumman and the US Navy completed the first arrested landing of the X-47B UCAS on Wednesday July 10, 2013.

The Northrop Grumman-built aircraft landed while the aircraft carrier was under way off the coast of Virginia, and marks the latest and most significant achievement for the program during carrier sea trials, which began in May.

‘Our operations aboard USS George H.W. Bush show, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that tailless unmanned aircraft can integrate seamlessly and operate safely from an aircraft carrier at sea,’ said Capt. Jaime Engdahl, Navy UCAS program manager in a statement.

The X-47B aircraft took off from Naval Air Station (NAS) Patuxent River, Maryland, July 10. A mission operator aboard the carrier took control of the aircraft and monitored the flight operations, which included several planned precision approaches in preparation for the first arrested landing.

During testing, the X-47B completed the 35 minute journey from Patuxent River to the carrier and caught the three-wire with the aircraft’s tailhook. The arrested landing effectively brought the aircraft from approximately 145 knots to stop in less than 350 feet.

‘Although it looks like it could be an easy manoeuvre, today’s successful arrested landings points back to a rigorous test plan focused on software development and system maturity to prove today that an autonomous unmanned system such as the X-47B can safely, seamlessly and predictably integrate into Navy carrier operations,’ said Carl Johnson, vice president and Navy UCAS program manager for Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems.

The arrested landings aboard the Bush are said to mark the third major aviation achievement by the UCAS-D program since May. On May 14, the X-47B became the first unmanned aircraft to be catapult launched from a Nimitz class aircraft carrier. On May 17, the aircraft performed the first in a series of precision approaches and touch-and-go landings on a carrier by an unmanned system.