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Navy One Step Closer To UAV Carrier Ops

by John Reed on July 7, 2011

The U.S. Navy just got a little closer to its goal of routinely flying combat drones off carriers by the close of the decade when an F/A-18 Hornet landed itself on the deck of the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN-69) using flight control software designed for the Northrop-Grumman-built X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System Demonstrator or UCAS-D.

On July 2, the F/A-18 (shown above) performed dozens of arrested landings without any input from the pilot in the Atlantic Ocean off the Virginia Capes. What’s really interesting about this is that the jet wasn’t controlled by someone in the carrier the way current drones are controlled from ground stations. No, this jet simply received a command from the carrier’s air traffic control to enter the landing pattern and execute the landing all on its own; the same way a piloted jet would.

“Once he’s on his approach, we actually take control of the aircraft via the systems we have installed as part of the demo and actually the aircraft is controlled by flight [rules] we put in place, all the way down to trap,” said Don Blottenberger,the Navy’s UCAS-D deputy principal program manager during a phone call with reporters this morning. “There is no remote control of the aircraft, there is no pilot control of the aircraft; we’ve given it instructions and it executes those instructions.”

Just to make it clear, Blottenberger added:

“There is no remote control, meaning there is no joystick, there’s no one that’s flying this aircraft from the carrier, we give it commands via the network we have in place … tying in with existing carrier systems and then the aircraft executes those commands.”

The system, which uses precision-GPS navigation data transmitted over Rockwell Collins’ Tactical Targeting Network Technology (which I thought was defunct), allows the air traffic controllers, air boss and landing signals officer to tell the plane to enter the approach and perform all the necessary adjustments in heading, altitude and speed necessary to perform a trap. In the final phase of the approach, the LSO can even order the jet to wave off using his terminal that has been modified to communicate with an unmanned jet, according to NAVAIR officials.

According to the Hornet’s pilot, Lt. Jeremy DeBons, the landing felt no different from when an F/A-18 lands using the Automated Carrier Landing System, although. Still, he kept his “hands very close” to the controls during the ‘hands-off’ landings.

The new, GPS-based system developed for the UCAS-D has 360-degree coverage around the ship; the ability to control multiple aircraft and allows the actual airplane to determine how it will fly according to the commands from air traffic control. The older radar-based auto-land system has limited coverage off the stern of the carrier, determines what type of stick and throttle inputs should be performed for the plane and can only control a limited number of aircraft, according to NAVAIR officials.

Now the Navy has proven the auto-landing system works, the two X-47Bs will be flown to NAS Patuxent River in Maryland where they’ll do everything from perform cat shots and arrested landings to practice operating on a crowded carrier deck mock up and flying in its airspace throughout next year. If all goes well, this will pave the way for an actual carrier landing by an X-47B sometime in 2013, according to NAVAIR.

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{ 39 comments… read them below or add one }

John Moore July 7, 2011 at 12:51 pm

By the time the f-35 gets here these drone`s will own the sky!


Guest A July 7, 2011 at 12:55 pm

I can't wait to see those things tooling around in the air around Pax…


Pandaa July 7, 2011 at 1:02 pm

I for one welcome our new drone overlords


Matt July 7, 2011 at 10:32 pm

Watch the Matrix recently?


jamesb July 7, 2011 at 1:39 pm

EVERYONE misses the point here….

The piece makes it clear that this redundancies means that there should NEVER be a time when a carrier a/c can't be landed, right?

If a pilot is hurt or off his/her game….

The a/c can simply land itself…..

Of-course the software works fine in good weather, right?
What about an electrical storm or bad weather when the a/c can't get good GPS fix?

This IS progress though…
No doubt….
Could save the Navy and taxpayers from a a lot of bent air frames…..


blight July 7, 2011 at 2:18 pm

It also means less lost airframes to human error; for takeoff and landing. It could also mean reducing the amount of ground crews if we move to more automation.


Cheesed July 7, 2011 at 2:24 pm

This reads like the introduction to a MilPorn novel.


blight July 7, 2011 at 2:29 pm

Is it the …


Cheesed July 7, 2011 at 2:33 pm

Yeah. I should've made that more clear… but I'm glad that you got it.


blight July 7, 2011 at 2:46 pm

If a pilot is hurt or off his/her game….

The a/c can simply land itself…..

"[insert tripe review here]!" ~[name here]


Sanem July 7, 2011 at 4:49 pm

a normal process: humans don't get better over generations, computers do

how long before human pilots are forbidden from landing on carriers, because they have a much higher failure rate? with equipment worth billions, you play by the numbers


Wildb Bill July 7, 2011 at 1:40 pm

Does it always catch the 3 wire?


Tomatojuice July 7, 2011 at 1:41 pm

This sounds great…. except… what if someone is able to hack the network and there is no "human" element to control the UAV?


Sanem July 7, 2011 at 4:51 pm

if someone is capable of hacking a UAV, I'd be more worried about him hacking the F-35, F-22…


Jack July 7, 2011 at 2:15 pm

WIll there be a UAV leaderboard for carrier landings just like the pilots have?



blight July 7, 2011 at 2:41 pm

What's interesting is this:

"The system, which uses precision-GPS navigation data…"

Meaning the carrier transmits its coordinates to the aircraft, which read it and use it to prepare for landing? Sounds like the automated analogy of landing by instruments only, and it sounds like a system like this would be more robust with image-recognition components: preprogramming optimal rate of descent, image recognition to find the wire, "spatial awareness" in case your tailhook doesn't come down completely and you must adjust landing profile to catch the arrestor cable…

In any case, it sounds like the first steps towards an unmanned force. If U-2's and C-130's can be flown off carrier decks (and before that, B-25s); bring on the drones!


Sanem July 7, 2011 at 4:58 pm

this will be the age of optics, computers are now developing the power to process optical information fast enough to be useful and accurate

combined with super-human reflexes, a lack of fear or human error, and a 24/7 360 degree line of sight, this will be the future of carrier landings but also air combat (the F-35 can already use this technology to recognise and track allies and enemies)


Lance July 7, 2011 at 2:52 pm

Why drones a F-18 is much more capible. SO why not spend money on a new carrier fighter that can do things F-18s cant. Drones for everything is a waste of money.


blight July 7, 2011 at 3:09 pm

Drones will put pilots out of business the same way that missiles have eliminated WW1-style dogfighting. There will always be a place for pilots, but it won't ever be the same.

Air-to-air drones are lighter, some probably have excellent loiter times, they probably can be launched faster, they definitely can be put through higher-G maneuvers that would black out a pilot and in a pinch can be sent out at much longer ranges for one-way trips. The Navy isn't in the business of sending pilots on one way trips to strike targets (a practice we risked in WW2 occasionally for big payoffs against the IJN), but there is a time and a place for it.

If all you need is a flying missile truck (especially since terminal radar on the missile does the work), do you really need a manned pilot for this? For more complicated missions, pilots will probably stick around.


Matt July 10, 2011 at 5:31 pm

I just can't picture drones as primary air to air fighters anytime soon. Sure for long, risky land/sea strikes it seems to be obvious, even arming them w/ air to air missles for self defense seems entirely realistic in the near term. I just don't see a computer being able to do all the quick thinking/creative things involved in a dogfight w/ processors small enough to fit on the aircraft (in the near term of course, in 50+ years who knows). A carrier landing and ground strikes are simipler. The targets are slower, they only move in 2D, aren't trying to avoid you (landings), and the bomb guidence does most of the work (strikes). If you use larger computers that just transmit to the UCAV you risk lag or worse being jammed. UAVs are a big part of the future but just like the Gatling gun didnt replace large armies, the missle didnt get rid of aircraft guns, etc I just find it tough to believe it will remove pilots as we know them.


blight2 July 10, 2011 at 11:15 pm

The most primitive AI implementation would be an echo of how IBM approached the Deep Blue chess match in the '90s: design a computer capable of calculating as many possible outcomes as possible, then choose best outcomes. For instance, at any instance in a dogfight, choose the best evasive maneuvers with respect to the inputs (enemy fighter type, missiles fired, fuel, etc). It's more a software problem before it becomes a hardware one.

Or in the case of modern BVR combat, assess radar contacts, engage if they don't meet IFF. Or, they engage only when instructed to by a CVN or aircraft.

I agree that there will be a time and a place for pilots, and that not all technological improvements completely supersede their precedents, but some do. Knights no longer charge with lances. Recoiless rifles are almost gone. Cavalry charges have been dead since WW2, and that "horseback charge" in Afghanistan probably didn't involve them running at the enemy with guns blazing (instead it was just guys on horseback).

The missile didn't get rid of aircraft guns, but when was the last gun kill of an enemy fighter plane? They remain in play for ground support, and probably to shred drones, but against aircraft?


Beltway Bandit July 7, 2011 at 3:16 pm

Would love to see the pilots underwear after that trap…


blight July 7, 2011 at 4:22 pm

Since my posts aren't showing up on the Afghan IED news thread, FYI:

Is the correct link. That is all.


Narl December 5, 2011 at 9:28 pm

In WWII, Japan had aircraft carrier subs, maybe we should adopt the concept with our drone carriers.


Elijah January 14, 2012 at 10:13 pm

Kilroy was here. So was the Airfoce, Army, Marines, and The Navy. The Coast Guard had to guard the home front.


William R. Abernathy June 14, 2012 at 10:16 am

It is or was called ACLS (Automated Carrier Landing System) – I was an E6 Navy ET assigned to Bell Aero Systems in 1969 landing F4-Phantoms at the same runway in PAX. At that time we loaded the computer program in a refrigerator size Univac with a roll of paper punch tape. I should have stayed in the Navy… Sure looks like fun.


blight_ June 14, 2012 at 10:19 am

Curious. Wouldn't the computer have to be aboard the aircraft? I'm sure a Univac would bite into range and payload, and if damaged…


Torch June 15, 2012 at 12:00 pm



Bel August 12, 2012 at 12:18 pm

Seeing a typhoon launch and recover ucavs would be good. Seeing starlifter and galaxy set up to carry launch refuel & recover ucav, and perhaps lift spooky spectre load, i hear they are groaning.


blight July 7, 2011 at 2:20 pm

Considering airlines don't even want to put GPS on their planes (oh lordy, the expense!) what're the odds they want something that can take off and land itself (though it means sticking the finger at highly-paid pilots)? Some passengers wouldn't stand for the uncomfortable thought of having no pilot at the helm either.


Sanem July 7, 2011 at 4:55 pm

several transport companies are looking into unmanned cargo planes

passenger aircraft will take longer to lose their pilots. but than again, humans once were afraid to sail too far from the sea

the irony is that an computer-controlled passenger aircraft is likely to be safer than a human-piloted one


blight July 7, 2011 at 4:21 pm

That would require total rethinks on carrier operations. For starters, we'd need faster ways of rearming than carrying bombs and missiles on trolleys. Devising a system like Pez dispensers to mate and load ordnance would eliminate pesky ground crew. Where possible, automation of ship systems would spin off to the rest of the fleet (though nuclear power systems may be a sore point, and people might still err on the side of caution).


blight July 7, 2011 at 5:08 pm

This might make sense to cargo carriers like UPS/FedEx, but you still run against the FAA, who needs to approve unmanned planes in airspace (similar to the bruhaha that engulfed UAVs operating on domestic soil). Once that hurdle is clear, unmanned trains and unmanned planes would be next. Unmanned cars remains a gigantic hurdle for the time being.


Cheesed July 7, 2011 at 7:08 pm



Brian July 8, 2011 at 1:37 am

That’s the idea, near total automation. In theory it would even itself be remotely controlled even the command crew. It could have robots to repair and when things got complicated it could use remote controlled worker bots. A brave new world


Riceball July 8, 2011 at 10:36 am

The unions will definitely fight the idea tooth and nail, I can practically guarantee that. Who cares about safety and reliability when there are precious union jobs at stake.


blight July 8, 2011 at 11:31 am

True that. I imagine the Air Force will also shrink in size, and they're the primary source of pilots for the airlines.


blight July 8, 2011 at 4:13 pm

Or cartridge magazines. Spring loaded system to quickly and efficiently load rounds. The present system would be the equivalent of muzzle-loaders.


blight July 8, 2011 at 4:14 pm

Though in the case of heavy bombs, springs would be a bad idea…


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