UAVs at sea

Northrop Grumman has successfully demonstrated a shipboard mission control system that will allow unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UAVs) to operate on board aircraft carriers.

Northrop Grumman has successfully demonstrated a shipboard mission control system that will allow unmanned combat aerial vehicles to participate safely and autonomously in conventional manned, aircraft-carrier flight operations.

The mission control system reportedly allows an operator of an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) to change the mission plan of the vehicle in flight in response to new air traffic control requirements, system failures or changes in enemy activity.

The demonstration occurred between February 23-29 on the USS Harry S. Truman aircraft carrier stationed off the East Coast of the United States. It was conducted as part of Northrop Grumman’s work on the Joint Unmanned Combat Air System (J-UCAS) program.

The J-UCAS program is an effort by the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the US Air Force and the US Navy to develop a new fleet of unmanned aerial vehicles that can perform combat missions for both services. Northrop Grumman is currently producing two X-47B demonstrator UAVs for the J-UCAS program.

“This test demonstrates that Northrop Grumman’s J-UCAS mission control system can work smoothly and effectively with a carrier air traffic control centre to bring the J-UCAS air vehicle into the carrier environment and get it safely down on the deck,” said Scott T. Winship, Northrop Grumman’s J-UCAS program manager. “It’s one of many key risk reduction tasks we’ve addressed to ensure that UAVs migrate successfully into this critical combat environment.”

The mission control system demonstration was led by DARPA in collaboration with Northrop Grumman and the Navy’s Joint Precision Approach and Landing System development program. It included Navy and J-UCAS mission control equipment installed on the Harry S. Truman and a specially configured Beechcraft King Air aircraft serving as an X-47B surrogate.

The surrogate X-47B, operating from a shore base, flew five sorties to the Harry S. Truman. Each sortie consisted of approaching the carrier, entering its air traffic control pattern, “waving off” instead of landing, and then circling back around.

During each approach, the surrogate’s onboard mission management system received instructions from the carrier-based Joint Precision Approach and Landing System air traffic control system, which it used to adjust variables including aircraft’s flight path and air speed for an optimum “landing” on the carrier deck. Simultaneously, the mission management system relayed the instructions to a small computer attached to the co-pilot’s steering yoke, and to the J-UCAS shipboard mission control system.

During normal operations, the J-UCAS air vehicle would respond directly to carrier air traffic control centre instructions via its mission management system, just like a manned aircraft. For this demonstration, however, the surrogate aircraft pilots executed the instructions manually to validate the integrity of the data link sending information between the carrier air traffic control system and the X-47B surrogate.

The J-UCAS mission control system operator does not normally participate directly in the air traffic control loop, but rather monitors the carrier air traffic control system’s interaction with the UAV. The operator also works co-operatively with the carrier air traffic controllers to prevent airspace conflicts between manned and unmanned systems.

The J-UCAS program was established in 2003 to demonstrate the technical feasibility, military utility and operational value of developing a network of high performance and weapons carrying UAVs.