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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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