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X-47B Completes First Pax River Flight

by Mike Hoffman on July 29, 2012

Naval aviation officials chose 11 a.m. on Sunday morning to make history as the X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System demonstrator made its first flight at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Md.

The tailess, unmanned aircraft designed to land on aircraft carriers made a 35 minute flight taking off from Pax River and flying over the Chesapeake Bay reaching an altitude of 7,500 feet and an air speed of 180 knots. Navy officials considered Sunday’s first test flight a success.

The service’s first unmanned strike aircraft arrived from Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., in June to continue its testing regimen. Pax River has a  simulated aircraft carrier environment to test the incredible feat of landing an unmanned aircraft on a carrier at sea. Navy leaders hope to make the first X-47B landing on a carrier in 2013.

“The X-47B’s flight today is another important step closer to the Navy’s vision of operating tailless, autonomous, unmanned systems from aircraft carriers,” Capt. Jaime Engdahl, Navy UCAS program manager, said in a statement.

Navy officials made the X-47B’s first test flight at Edwards in February 2011 (see a video here). The unmanned aircraft demonstrator has completed a host of tests leading up to its flight to Pax River to include reaching an altitude of 15,000 feet. Sunday marked the X-47Bs first test flight since arriving at Pax River.

A team made up of officials and engineers from the Navy and Northrop Grumman, builder of the X-47, will continue to work to master the art of landing on a carrier. Test flights started at Edwards where the X-47 extended the tail hook. Tests at Pax River will include procedures following “bolter runs” which occur when the tail hook does not catch and an aircraft must immediately take off again.

“This milestone event is the first of many flights at Pax River to demonstrate X-47B’s compatibility with aircraft carrier flight procedures and launch/recovery equipment,” Matt Funk, UCAS lead test engineer said in a Navy statement. “The unique airspace and ship equipment at Pax River allow us to conduct the testing here before we land aboard the aircraft carrier next year.”

We expect to learn more Tuesday when the Navy has invited reporters down to Pax River to find out what the service has planned for the X-47B demonstrator.

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{ 86 comments… read them below or add one }

Lance July 30, 2012 at 12:14 am

Looks like a mini unmanned B-2.

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Steve Smith August 1, 2012 at 4:48 pm

How about the Navy's cancelled A-12, Avenger II?

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yaboy July 30, 2012 at 1:38 am

Now taking RFPs for Top Gun 2: Unmanned Volleyball.

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Musson July 30, 2012 at 8:40 am

The next Tailhook scandle will involve two cloud servers, a network router and some WD40.

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Chuck July 30, 2012 at 9:42 am

Too funny.

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Chris July 30, 2012 at 10:15 am

gave me a laugh

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murray July 30, 2012 at 2:21 am

Great , automatic navy

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Nadnerbus July 30, 2012 at 6:01 am

After skynet takes control, they will fly with a perfect operational record.

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navrider July 30, 2012 at 7:46 am

hey defense tech writer,
The hook does not catch the aircraft, it catches the arresting cable !!! … duh !!!

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shawn1999 August 1, 2012 at 4:09 pm

Uh, he didn't say it did:

which occur when the tail hook does not catch and an aircraft must immediately take off again

The "and" separates the two thoughts: one being "the tail hook does not catch" and the second being "an aircraft must immediately take off again"

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OldmanRick July 30, 2012 at 8:57 am

I love tec, but I have one question. What happens to all this great tec after a high alt nuclear blast?

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EW3 July 30, 2012 at 11:25 am

EMP is not it's all it's cracked up to be.

EMP works against best against long transmission lines like power and communications.

The defense against EMP is a Faraday shield. An aircraft is almost an ideal Faraday shield which pass the pulse around the electronics inside the airframe. Inside the airframe many components are inside metal boxes adding to even greater protection.

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STemplar July 30, 2012 at 1:31 pm

The end of civilization as nations annihilate each other with nukes.

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Dave August 1, 2012 at 7:17 pm

It all ceases to function. Case closed

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Chris July 30, 2012 at 10:16 am

That isn't exactly plausible. The next world war will be far from nuclear.

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JCitizen August 1, 2012 at 5:46 pm

Oh, I wouldn't put it past Iran to drop one, but it will probably be hidden aboard a ship and delivered the harbor in New York city!

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Prodozul July 30, 2012 at 10:22 am

I'm confused now is the X-47B just a technology demonstrator or is it going into full production?

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tiger July 30, 2012 at 11:23 am

It's a x craft. X for experimental.

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Prodozul July 30, 2012 at 11:42 am

Don't know why I thought otherwise…

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shawn1999 August 1, 2012 at 4:11 pm

Becuase many X's become operational (XF-22)

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Chuck July 30, 2012 at 11:29 am

So tell me again, how did we lose that Sentenal to Iran? I like pilots, more reliable than computers, they won WWII, they have no fear.

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tiger July 30, 2012 at 11:47 am

Computers don't blackout in a 9G turn. Computers don't eat,sleep, or use the head. Computers don't get apoxia from a bad O2 system. They don't do dumb pilot error things like fly a Airbus into the ocean.

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blight_ July 30, 2012 at 12:57 pm

In the case of that Airbus, the pilots misread their instrumentation and reacted accordingly…or am I mixing up my incidents?

That said, if a nation deploys ground stations that broadcast on the same frequencies as GPS (similar to WAAS) conceivably one could confuse a GPS-guided UAV. You need backup INS and a starfinder…that said, nobody has any clue yet how Iran got their hands on the RQ-170.

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Ben July 30, 2012 at 1:49 pm

I thought that's exactly how Iran brought the RQ-170 down. Wasn't it confirmed that they broadcast false GPS data to it in order to fool the thing into landing in Iran?

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Johnny Ranger July 30, 2012 at 5:22 pm

If it's the Brazil (maybe Argentina?)-to-France Airbus incident, as I recall the aircraft's pitot tubes were fouled. The pilots read the data right, it was just bad data.

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tiger July 30, 2012 at 11:16 pm

http://abcnews.go.com/International/air-france-fl

Bad pilot, bad weather & bad data.

tiger July 30, 2012 at 11:47 pm
Chris July 30, 2012 at 7:54 pm

In regards to the airbus, there are some things involving the aircraft systems that aren't exactly publicly toted or understood. The pilots DID stall it into the ocean. But there are flaws on the airbus that even I find puzzling.

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STemplar July 30, 2012 at 1:32 pm

The same way we lost a F117 to the Serbs, shit goes wrong in war.

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tiger July 30, 2012 at 11:31 am

I can't wait for some guy to give it the call sign, Tin Man like the movie "Stealth."
Behold the future kids. Next step before Robotech fighters & Gundams do the fighting.

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blight_ July 30, 2012 at 12:58 pm

Robotech VF and Gundam mecha had organic, sentient pilots.

Making allowances for the Zenetraedi and the Invid, who had their own mecha.

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UAVgeek July 30, 2012 at 2:42 pm

Until you got to the Ghost X-9 that had a AI bio-neural chip.

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blight_ July 30, 2012 at 5:07 pm

I forgot to note that Macross is the Japanese canon, and Robotech was when several mecha anime from Japan (of which Macross was just one) were merged together for American TV syndication.

Never saw Macross Plus. Any good?

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tiger July 30, 2012 at 11:07 pm

Nothing cooler back in the day than space going Tomcats shooting bad guys.

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Rhys F August 2, 2012 at 2:39 pm

you thinking about "above and Beyond" the Series with cloned fighters bulking out the pilots against the alien menace?

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blight_ July 30, 2012 at 1:01 pm

Probably with a local ground station as control; or does the Navy have plans to co-locate at Creech?

Ideally, we should put its control electronics aboard a demonstrator ship, park it out to sea and see if it can teleoperate effectively from a distance.

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TomUK July 30, 2012 at 1:49 pm

I think that the original concept was they're supposed to be tactically independent, operating as a 'swarm' nevertheless, and intended to be under some sort of vague 'sub-strategic' programming. No doubt someone's thought that through, bearing in mind the Law Of Unintended Cosquences.

Huge Achilles heels are GPS, Link 16, et al. – I think the 'EMP comments', above, are very relevant.

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STemplar July 30, 2012 at 1:33 pm

At the rate this program is going it will conduct carrier landings before the F35.

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coolhand77 July 30, 2012 at 1:45 pm

Umm, isn't the B already doing carrier landings?

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STemplar July 30, 2012 at 3:11 pm

Ummmm, no, it can't catch the wire and it's likely to be at best a year behind schedule. If LM's tweaks dont' work who knows how long.

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Chris July 30, 2012 at 7:57 pm

"B" variant is STOVL… "C" variant is the beefed-up USN version with the tailhook problems.

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STemplar July 30, 2012 at 3:12 pm

The B is for the USMC by the way, it isn't meant to land on carriers, it's meant to land on amphibs designed for it because it would like melt decking on a CVN.

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Pappa51 July 30, 2012 at 5:14 pm

It still takes a man to manage it.
Star Trek is closer than we think.
Cheers

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LetsLobRob July 31, 2012 at 2:36 am

I like the idea of te Navy getting into this technoogy…Good idea. (the Air Force can't own it all).

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LetsLobRob July 31, 2012 at 2:37 am

P.S. (I'm Air Force).

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chernobyl August 1, 2012 at 12:13 am

I'd rather see the x-48 come to fruition.

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Michael Gene August 1, 2012 at 1:25 am

UAV pilots sitting half way across the globe with no skin in the game will never be as formidable as a fighter or bomber pilot in the cockpit with his life on the line.

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tiger August 1, 2012 at 4:43 am

There are 10,000+ Dead & missing 8th AF bomber crew who would beg to differ. Nor does 7 years in the Hanoi Hilton sound like a trade off for a target destroyed. There is a time & place for silk scarfs & guts.

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blight_ August 1, 2012 at 7:42 am

Look up Iceal Hambleton. Shot down in RVN, spent a lot of lives to rescue one man because he had worke at Strategic Air Command, had high-level clearances and worked on countering SAM systems; the first "high value target".

And they had to do it after Vietnamization.

There is always a risk and human cost to deploying a manned platform. Before, we had no options and had to pay the price, even if we were dropping dumb bombs on a bridge and losing pilots for a bomb that didn't hit or caused minor damage.

With unmanned systems, we can now judge which missions are "worth" a pilot, based on superior response times of a human or the ability to change on the fly, or possibly if satellite systems are destroyed or degraded by a solar flare event, for example…

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Todd August 1, 2012 at 5:19 pm

Not sure about that. The remote operators do not have anywhere near the situational awareness that a pilot has. Plus they have the General in the next room "helping" to make decisions. I do think that UAVs have a role, I do not think theywill replace piloted craft entirely.

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blight_ August 1, 2012 at 6:33 pm

The problems with UAVs are exacerbated by a combination of transmission of high resolution imagery over the slowest pipeline possible: wireless SATCOM.

If you focus on air-to-air, you decompose the data to radar/IRST signals, which reduce the data overhead. But the moment your UAVs are intended for ground strike, then you have to image the ground at high res for someone in Creech, and that's where problems begin.

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Tiger August 1, 2012 at 10:18 pm

Been going on for 10 years. In fact The USAF turn out more UAV drivers than jet jocks today.

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blight_ August 2, 2012 at 6:48 am

Makes you wonder how many UAVs we have, plus satellites to push bandwidth.

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Flybuoy August 1, 2012 at 7:31 am

X-47 is a proof of concept test platform. Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike System (UCLASS) will be the initial operational variant. Goal is a carrier launched system for deep strike and surveillance system.

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Sanem August 1, 2012 at 9:34 am

Predators and Reapers are the weapon of choice over Afghanistan
soon enough aircraft like the X-47B will replace manned aircraft in all other missions

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Brian K August 1, 2012 at 3:48 pm

Here's some name suggestions, A-47 Coward, A-47 Bully, A-47 Backstabber, A-47 Sucker Punch, A-47 Sneak Thief, etc…

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common August 1, 2012 at 4:17 pm

This has been flying over OEF/OIF since 2003. This is just a press stunt now.

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Homer August 1, 2012 at 5:05 pm

When they start taking men OUT of the equation, then there goes the system! Machines may work but they don't think/reason1 they just do what they are programmed to do! Someone asked, how did we loose that drone? OR Did we, or did someone give it to the camel jockeys? Always think negative when it comes to this, or any govt! It works for me!

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Riceball August 9, 2012 at 10:55 am

Where you do get that people are being taken out of the equation with these unmanned drones? Most, if not all, of our drones are called unmanned only because there's no one inside the cockpit controlling the thing but that doesn't that there isn't a human at the other end controlling it. A more accurate way of describing these drones is remotely piloted aircraft, basically our drones are r/c aircraft on steroids; we're a long way from Macross Plus and Stealth.

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WD Southworth August 1, 2012 at 6:30 pm

I think it's great. Now our pilots can stay in the ready room & with a laptop operate their remote delivery systems with no threat to them personally.

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tiger August 1, 2012 at 10:10 pm

And home for dinner with the wife & kids. "How was work Hun?" Oh, same old stuff. Nailed two guys planing IED's near Kabul. Could you pass the stove top stuffing?"

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blight_ August 2, 2012 at 6:47 am

Brings the whole "Home By Christmas" into perspective.

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old wing August 1, 2012 at 9:00 pm

last pilot out shut out the lights. your finished.

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Winston August 2, 2012 at 3:50 am

I heard it was Chinese hackers who actually brought down the RQ-170 Sentinal over Iran. Really.

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Sam August 4, 2012 at 3:47 pm

That's the beast of kandahar. That's been flying forever.

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blight_ August 5, 2012 at 1:57 pm

Beast of Kandahar is either a pile of rubble or an Iranian mockup.

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speculator August 5, 2012 at 11:08 am

pilot? is that someone who drives a tugboat?

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@Matthew_Bailey September 24, 2012 at 1:57 am

For those who doubt the effectiveness of remotely piloted, or automated combat aircraft (or ANY Combat robotics)…

I would look into the work of Dr. Ron Arkin at Georgia Tech, where he has literally written the Pentagon's book on Armed Combat Robotics.

Combat Robots promise to bring a precision to warfare that is not even possible with humans.

Robots do not get too hot, too cold, lonely, afraid, angry, vengeful, hungry, fat, lazy, tired, etc…

And when what we call a "Mistake" has been made by one, it will only happen ONCE for any one given reason.

Yet how many times have we seen the EXACT SAME MISTAKES made by human warfighters due to stress, fatigue, fear, rage, vengefulness, etc.

Humans have emotions that can override their reasoning abilities, as is obvious in the comment's section.

It is not Cowardly, nor any other dishonorable thing to replace a nation's troops with robotic weapons.

To use the words such as "Cowardly" to describe this isn't even wrong (It's like answering "Horse" when asked "What is 2+2?"). A robot can be neither brave nor cowardly.

This saves the lives of our citizens, and allows soldiers to not have to risk their lives fighting asymmetric battles where they are at a disadvantage due to an enemy that itself IS deceptive, cowardly, and dishonest.

As far as "human pilots" able to outfly this thing.

In your very wildest dreams!

No human pilot can sustain a 12g turn for any amount of time. Yet these autonomous combat vehicles can easily pull 6g to 12g maneuvers for any amount of time needed without blacking out, or the need for expensive life-support to keep them alive.

And, no human can continuously sustain combat activities for much more than 18 hours, safely (and even that is a stretch), whereas these robots can remain on station for years, given in-flight refueling (of course, they will also need in-flight re-arming if that is the case).

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Ben July 30, 2012 at 5:57 pm

University of Texas students did it just recently.
http://www.popsci.com/technology/article/2012-06/

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blight_ July 30, 2012 at 6:11 pm

Would you be thinking of the P(Y)-code?
http://www.navcen.uscg.gov/pubs/gps/gpsuser/gpsus

Granted, the above is very old, but…

"Either the C/A-code or the P-code can be used to determine the range between the satellite and the user, however, the P-code is normally encrypted and available only to authorized users. When encrypted, the P-code is known as the Y-code. A 50 Hz navigation message is superimposed on both the P(Y) -code and the C/A-code. The navigation message includes satellite clock-bias data, satellite ephemeris (precise orbital) data for the transmitting satellite,
ionospheric signal-propagation correction data, and satellite almanac (coarse orbital) data for the entire constellation."

Hypothetically…what if the RQ-170 did not have appropriately protected GPS? Then again, this is right after the time it was found that UAV telemetry was being broadcast unencrypted, and at some point was being accessed by Iraqis.

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blight_ July 30, 2012 at 6:12 pm

The last parading I can recall was the unfortunate crew of Super 64. Though Iran did capture some Brits who were in Iraqi waters…

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Chris July 30, 2012 at 7:55 pm

I still think the Iranians had "outside" help in bringing that drone down. And if it is flying over Iran chances are it isn't "cutting edge" as far as our inventory is concerned.

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EW3 July 30, 2012 at 8:42 pm

Are you familiar with what is included in the almanac and ephemerous data? Now think about the nature of a typical GPS ceramic antenna. Think about what the constellation looks like to the reciever.

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EW3 July 30, 2012 at 8:48 pm

I really don't buy the story. Either that or the people that chose the GPS for the altair were pretty bad.
Just think about the constellation of satellites in the sky and where they are. Think about 7 or 8 satellites as 7 or 8 sources of RF. How many RF sources did the students use ?
Now add in a very directional GPS antenna and the GPS almanac knowing at what azimuth and ahat angle above the horizon they are.

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blight_ July 30, 2012 at 10:17 pm

Outside help or not, I think EW3 is suggesting there is more to GPS than simply broadcasting a particular waveform on a particular wavelength to make a drone just go off course.

If one RF gives a really nutty signal, the signal processing would probably drop the signal and recalculate only with the best signals.

The challenge is to totally jam legit signals and replace them with enough sources in a convincing fashion to make a GPS go where you want it.

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blight_ July 30, 2012 at 10:22 pm

Familiar, no. I'm in for molecular biology, not electrical engineering.

My guess is that the a single groundstation could try to lead a drone away, but would simply drop the spurious signal. Instead, one has to replicate a confounding constellation and provide a superior signal.

Trying to imagine superimposing two N-body problems, with the second set designed to provide enough triangulation data on the ground to emulate a constellation above the UAV, but offset in a way to confuse the UAV. If a UAV attempts to average the signal, it might not end so well. But if GPS can just drop the spurious signal, then there has to be another way to do it.

That said, aircraft can use ground station signals for GPS, so does that require a separate antenna? And if a UAV doesn't have one…?

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Chris July 30, 2012 at 10:22 pm

Then possibly we meant for it to drop out of the sky over Iran ;)

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blight_ July 30, 2012 at 10:34 pm

Possible.

However, this is something only MI-6 is clever enough to try. Like that dead guy who carried fake orders in WW2

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Tiger July 30, 2012 at 11:17 pm

I think the Trojan Horse trick is the oldest in the book. Actually, It predates books…..

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EW3 July 31, 2012 at 10:49 am

GPS antennas are by design highly directional. The ground plane they are mounted on blocks 99.99% of RF energy from beneath them. (The ground stations you are thinking of are not GPS ( something TACAN like)
You can use the directionality of the antenna to ensure GPS satellites are where they should be.
All of this can be done with simple commercial GPS equipment.

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Phono July 31, 2012 at 5:44 pm

wouldn't it be enough to completly block the GPS for a certain amount of time to trigger some type of emergency-landing-behavior?

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blight_ July 31, 2012 at 9:58 pm

I was thinking of WAAS, which I only learned about when I installed my GPS double-DIN into my car and noticed it supported WAAS signals.

Though I guess WAAS is intended for North America only.

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EW3 July 31, 2012 at 9:07 pm

No way.

GPS is almost always tied to an Inertial Navigation system.

In a Tomahawk missile it's the INS that is in charge, and they use the GPS to update it. Usually checked every second.

If they were smart with the software they measure the divergence of INS and GPS. There are a lot of things that I have inferred that the GPS can do to ensure it's accurate. If there is a divergence time to kick in backups.

To be honest with you, I'd never let it get that far.

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blight_ July 31, 2012 at 9:52 pm

Re Tomahawk, I remember reading a fairly obscure document that suggested that a number of TLAMs using TERCOM/INS/GPS were having issues during OIF.
http://lewis.armscontrolwonk.com/archive/2560/why

The name suggests a bias of some kind.

If you know your flight path and have INS, you're unlikely to have serious problems, even with GPS jamming. But a UAV obviously doesn't have TERCOM, or perhaps uses a different flavor of it that recognizes a larger chunk of the terrain below (and TERCOM forces you to follow a very specific flight path, not good)

I'm guessing UAV is also too low to use a star tracker?

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EW3 August 1, 2012 at 12:39 pm

WAAS satellites are in geo synch orbit. The stations you are thinking of do not transmit to GPS receivers directly. They are used to compute local variations in GPS transmission times, mostly due to atmospheric conditions. The adjustment are sent to a GPS control station and from there to the WAAS satellites.
FWIW – it's hard to convince people WAAS is useful. The difference in accuracy is over long periods of time, but in any instant it's hard to observe.

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blight_ August 1, 2012 at 1:06 pm

Edit: WAAS is SBAS instead of the GBAS I was thinking of.

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