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Navy’s Second Stealthy X-47B Drone Flies

by John Reed on November 28, 2011

Let’s start this post-Thanksgiving week off with a picture that reminds us the era of unmanned strike jets flying off aircraft carriers is fast approaching. Yup, those stealthy looking planes are Northrop Grumman’s X-47 Unmanned Combat Air System demonstrator jets. The first one took to the skies in February and the second X-47, dubbed Air Vehicle-2, had its first flight out of Edwards Air Force Base in California on Nov. 22. The plane flew to 5,000 feet and flew in several giant circles near the base before landing.

Now, AV-2 will stay at Edwards while the first jet is going to be shipped to NAS Patuxent River, Md., in the next month or so where the Navy will practice simulated carrier take-offs and landings with the jet. If that testing goes well, the plane will start landing on a real aircraft carrier in 2013, using this technology.

Unlike most current UAVs in service, the X-47 flies autonomously along a pre-progammed route rather than having a pilot control its every movement, as a Northrop Grumman announcement of the second aircraft’s flight explains:

The X-47B is a computer-controlled unmanned aircraft system that takes off, flies a preprogrammed mission, and then returns to base – all in response to mouse clicks from a mission operator. The operator actively monitors the X-47B air vehicle’s operation using simple situational awareness displays, but does not fly it via remote control, as some unmanned systems are operated.

All of this is meant to pave the way for the Navy’s Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike drone; a stealthy, fighter-sized, air-to-air refuelable jet that can carry bombs and ISR gear over fairly heavily defended targets. The Navy wants UCLASS to be operational by 2018, so it’s very likely going to be based on jets that are already flying, like the X-47B.

Here’s a picture of the second X-47B on its maiden flight.

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{ 45 comments… read them below or add one }

Musson1 November 28, 2011 at 10:08 am

What about a UAV that is catapulted from a Destroyer and retrieved via sea landing? A seaborne Predator drone shot from a non-carrier surface ship – could really extend the Navy's reach.

It would not need all the bells and whistles of these unmanned strike jets.

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Guest November 28, 2011 at 10:28 am

This reminds me of the videos of battleships doing the same thing in the early 20th century with manned planes and early UAVs in Desert Storm. But it won't happen, it's far too simple.

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Brian Black November 28, 2011 at 11:08 am

If rotary wings aren't good enough for you, a few years back the British mulled over the concept of a fixed wing UAV that took of and landed vertically, sat on its bottom – like the Convair Pogo from way back in the day ('50s?).

Able to take off and land on the small deck of a destroyer or frigate.

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Sanem November 28, 2011 at 12:37 pm

- tailsitter UAV: http://www.rcgroups.com/forums/showthread.php?t=6
- water-landing UAV: http://www.nerdmodo.com/2009/05/rq-15-neptune-uav
- and than there's the Fire-Scout, the Fire-X, the MQ-18, all VTOL UAV's with impressive performance for their size and cost

I certainly agree that a Predator (or lighter) class UAV would be an invaluable addition to any ship big enough to operate it, turning them into mini-carriers, combining the best elements of small ship and air power

I imagine a stovl model would give the most bang for the buck, perhaps catapult launched and landing on its tail

as mentioned a Pogo style concept would be interesting, a computer doesn't care if it's landing vertically

in fact, many modern fighter can stand on their tail in the air, so in theory you could tail-land a Typhoon class aircraft

but I fear the concept faces stiff competition from gold-plated (but not always more effective) super-carriers and the F-35B, neither of which the Navy will easily give up

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Mastro November 28, 2011 at 1:17 pm

It would be great for anti-piracy patrols. A lot cheaper than having a carrier or an LSD on station.

Much longer legs than a helo-

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mike December 31, 2011 at 2:28 pm

what good are these drones if some clown can trick it into landing

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Sanem November 28, 2011 at 12:18 pm

hmmmm, twins, talk about your war porn :)

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Tim November 28, 2011 at 2:31 pm

And they sure look real… sexy… if you know what I mean… :)

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zardinuk November 29, 2011 at 12:12 am

I'm not sure if I know what you mean… sexy is exactly how I'd describe them, are there hidden undertones to your comment that I'm not aware of?

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Rabbit November 29, 2011 at 12:21 am

It's just a bit of a running joke among technology blogs in general to describe sexy pictures of tech as porn. On top of that this one's got twins in it. ;) I'll refrain from the if-you-know-what-i-mean comments since I'm technically on the clock here!

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ew-3 November 28, 2011 at 12:39 pm

Wonder what the effect will be of UAVs on carrier operations.

Do their "pilots" need to get as much air time to stay sharp ?

Can we keep UAVs in storage like we do missiles to be broken out only when needed for actual operations?

All very exciting stuff, next 10 years will be very interesting.

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blight November 29, 2011 at 3:32 am

One would hope that UAV pilots would get more "hours" with flying. We have some nice border real estate that could use guarding…sorry, border areas that are used as "flight ranges" or "testing ranges".

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Sanem November 29, 2011 at 6:29 am

well there won't be pilots for these aircraft in the strict sense: the aircaft will fly themselves 99% of the time, just like the Global Hawk (from the same company) has been flown for a decade now

the pilot as I understand it is reduced to keeping an eye on things. but if you put in the right parameter alerts, this job task can be greatly reduced, a single "pilot" being able to oversee multiple UCAVs, even multiple squadrons

the accent of this weapons system will fall on the sensor and weapons operator, who'll in effect take over as mission executer, as this is the hard part of the mission, compared to flying, in-air refueling and even landing, which can all be greatly automated

an important question will be who takes control during the missions: for landing direct control from the carrier will be a must, but for the missions the operators need not be on the ship, they can be back in the states, the way UAVs are currently operated. combined with the reduced need for a pilot this gives a huge advantage in man power, as you can operate a huge number of aircraft for days on end, without having the operators on a cramped ship

I'd suggest the USN join up the with the Army and USN to set up shared operating centres all over the country, sharing a pool of local operator talent, so they always have the best people in sufficient numbers at hand, regardless of the actual aircraft or the mission location. but than the services aren't known for sharing (what organisation is?)

as for training, the UCAVs will need to fly a lot less practice flights, as the flying itself will be mostly automated, and sensor and weapons operators can be easily trained on simulators and other UAVs

but if UCAVs are operated anything like UAVs (that's likely), they'll be deployed operationally most of the time anyway

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gSk November 9, 2012 at 1:51 pm

These particular UAVs do not use pilots in the conventional sense. They do NOT have joysticks that a remote operator uses. Commands are input via button presses. way less "crew" fatigue. All just a demo at the moment. But huge savings on training possible. Takes a ton of flight time and training and practice to keep carrier pilots current and skilled.

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dddd November 28, 2011 at 12:59 pm

I would like to see UAVs launched from submarines. I am sure that someone, somewhere, is working on it.

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Mastro November 28, 2011 at 1:21 pm

I wrote before that a UAV could be launched like a SSBM- but recovery would be tough

Was deleted for some reason…

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PMI November 29, 2011 at 12:06 am

They're called Tomahawks.

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dddd November 29, 2011 at 12:06 pm

Touche.

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blight November 29, 2011 at 3:28 am
Lance November 28, 2011 at 3:05 pm

Waste of money all it is or will be is a Billion dollar clay pigeon for a MiG.

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Josh November 28, 2011 at 4:22 pm

Besides the fact that it’s stealth,it’s expendable. A pilot isn’t…

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crackedlenses November 28, 2011 at 7:00 pm

You won't be griping so loud when one of these babies eats a SAM for your sorry hide……

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Nadnerbus November 28, 2011 at 9:59 pm

Somehow I doubt they are planning on just sending them into an operational air defense environment with no plan. Their whole design is meant to get them past the MIGs and SAMs without a fight. Of course they would come up very short in a dogfight. That is what the F-22s and F-35s are for.

I can see in the not too distant future where UCAVS like these would greatly multiply the capability of an air strike force. A mixed strike starting with TLAMS and stealth strikes against air defense networks and air bases using the above assets would be almost impossible to stop.

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Marcelo November 28, 2011 at 4:41 pm

Modern turbine UAVs are capable of staying 36 hrs on station at high altitude normal cruise (50-60k ft). Plus this UAV is intended to be air refueled. They have autonomy to take off in Boston, fly to England, patrol for at least 8 hrs, and return home. With air refueling, they can stay aloft for days at a time. With that kind of range, there is hardly any need for them to be based on smaller non carrier ships. They will actually have 3x the strike range of any manned aircraft any carrier on the planet has today.

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Chimp November 29, 2011 at 2:19 am

Why patrol England? We have Typhoons…. well, they don't fly, but the RAF Flight Spitfire is still on the job. Just fill it up with .303 and jolly old England's air defences are back to 1940's standards.

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blight November 29, 2011 at 2:59 am

36 hours on station with the lightest UAV that is vulnerable to satlink problems and armed with a handful of Hellfire missiles. The light weight from eliminating pilot and life support is always nice.

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Sanem November 29, 2011 at 6:40 am

which is why I'm all for the USAF and even Western Allies also buying these aircraft: they could be launched, refueled, armed and recovered from any USAF/USN/USArmy/Allied air base or any USN/Allied aircraft carrier. the same way todays fighters can be refueled by any USAF/USN/Allied tanker aircraft

and I do agree that their range makes carriers less of a must. carriers do add a huge tactical advantage, shortening the kill chain, which can be invaluable (USAF aircraft won't have to fly so far to reload). but if this advantage is worth their gargantuan cost remains the question

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blight November 29, 2011 at 8:17 am

UAVs won't really succeed until we figure out a way to cut our reliance on satellite systems. Don't know if tropo scatter could work, as it requires massive facilities and power for communication. The alternative would be something to extend LOS-like the dreaded airship in unmanned form to act as a communications link. We may start the next war with a counter-satellite attack, leaving the operators in Creech with little to do.

Alternatively we need to figure out if we can use larger aircraft with appropriate commuications equipment for long-range control of UAVs. We should be prudent in ensuring the redundancy of our offensive arms against attacks to their weak links. Just as missile silo vulnerability is offset by the SSBN force, satellites must be compensated for to protect them as assets in wartime.

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morris wise November 28, 2011 at 6:04 pm

Nations do not park nuclear warheads on their missiles, they are separated by miles. In an emergency special team are called out to transport and mount the nuclear bombs, that type of movement is tracked by satellite. It would be a waste of money to shoot a 50 million dollar ICBM missile loaded with conventional explosives into enemy territory; they are needed for the destruction of cities not automobiles.

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dddd November 28, 2011 at 6:28 pm

No offense, but 1) we (and the Russians and British) do in fact park our nuclear warheads on our missiles 2) a conventional ICBM would destroy much more than a car 3) a conventional ICBM is theoretically the best counter to fixed enemy air defenses, making it care more useful than a city-destroyer alone. Nuclear weapons are political weapons precisely because they destroy whole cities and have questionable military utility (assuming you square your actions with your objectives)–ICBMs have many tactical uses.

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TMB November 28, 2011 at 7:28 pm

What's any of that have to do with this article?

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Stephen N Russell November 28, 2011 at 8:47 pm

Now to see 1 sqdn fly of UAVs, awesome,
For Navy & Air Force units both.

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Rabbit November 29, 2011 at 12:26 am

With all the advances in drone tech, it sure is an exciting time to be following defence. Seems like air dominance will still require a human touch for awhile yet, though.

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OMEGATALON November 29, 2011 at 1:08 am

The mission for the X-47B might be something like attacking Iran's nuclear facility with small tactical nuclear devices because the structures are too deep for the X-47B's munitions to penetrate and with range in excess of 2100 nautical miles, the X-47B can be launched very far from Iran without anyone suspecting the impending strike especially if the X-47B is refueled in-air.

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dddd November 29, 2011 at 1:35 am

As long as you can convince America that we can safely carry nuclear weapons on unmanned aircraft. I think it is inevitable.

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PMI November 29, 2011 at 2:53 am

Posted it before but since it's still relevant…

They're called Tomahawks.

In this case the BGM-109G GLCM.

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blight November 29, 2011 at 2:58 am

The GLCMs were canned from the IRF treaty (though we probably prematurely canned our programs entirely, but it was a necessary sacrifice to end the Cold War. Since the PRC is working on them, we should pledge to keep Europe IRBM/GLCM free and reactivate new variants for the Pacific. CENTCOM might still be too close to Russia when it comes to IRBMs. Maybe we'll use conventional BMs and bring back the old Midgetman…though Midgetman is borderline ICBM.

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tiger November 29, 2011 at 6:48 am

One day we will say this is how the Terminator & the Cylons got started. Sci Fi is not so fictional any more.

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Guest November 29, 2011 at 11:18 am

As critical as I am about the idea that UAVs are anywhere near ready to truely replace manned fighters, this is great news and I am very interersted in this aircraft.This is a big step forward in making UAVs a viable weapon for actual warfare rather than just COIN and light CAS. These will give carriers the long range strike cababilities the A-12 was supposed to provide.

And not to mention it looks very nice. I'm a sucker for stealth and flying wing designs. It actually looks like a mean fighting machine rather than a glorified RC plane with missiles hanging off the bottom.

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dddd November 29, 2011 at 12:12 pm

My main questions are 1) if it operates autonomously, can it adapt to changing circumstances in the course of battle 2) if operated by remote, is there a way to limit the probability that enemies can jam or even detect the signal. In regards to the second question, I think UAV's working in tandem could relay signals from the carrier group in a line-of-sight pattern that would render detection by the enemy less likely, seeing as the signal can be very narrow and unidirectional, whereas a signal from a satellite is more prone to interference. Can anybody confirm this?

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Travis Burke November 29, 2011 at 1:17 pm

Thats pretty sweet. I love the look of a stealth plane. I saw a few while I was on a military tourism trip in Israel. Sidebar: The trip was awesome, we shot a lot of different kind of guns, everything from pistols, to sniper rifles, to shotguns, even got to throw a few grenades. We also learned a lot of special forces techniques and got to put them to the test with a paintball simulation. For christ's sake, we even went skydiving and learned krav maga. we literally did everything on that trip except fly stealth fighter jet. basically, just check out the company i went with http://www.lionops.com

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Mike January 26, 2012 at 8:11 am

Oh to be 19 years old again.

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Mike West January 27, 2012 at 11:20 am

What type of fuel does this UAV use

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joe smith October 10, 2012 at 7:09 pm

Why not put a seat on it and sell it as a fying car through GM? The Jetsons might like it…

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blight November 29, 2011 at 8:19 am

Unless like the TLAM-N they are treated as very expensive single-use objects.

They may test them for nuclear weapons handling; after all JSF needs to get rated for nuke deployment like its predecessors.

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