Thinking Through the Brave New World of Carrier-Based Drones

Back in November the U.S. Navy craned an X-47B, officially labeled an “unmanned combat air system,” aboard the USS Harry S. Truman (CVN 75) for the drone’s first carrier-based testing.

And nothing says “brave new world” like the thought of drone’s taxiing around the flight deck alongside manned aircraft during regular cyclic ops.  Keeping 25 airplanes from smashing into each other before launch is hard enough with pilots in the loop; what will the absence of them do to the Handler’s pucker factor?

Enter the Control Display Unit.  The CDU is the device that allows operators on the flight deck to control the X-47.  The CDU is a wireless handheld device that controls thrust, brakes, and nosewheel steering to maneuver the aircraft wherever it needs to go around the flight deck.

So if we consider how current generation manned aircraft make it from start up to the cat, we can get a sense of how an unmanned aircraft would do the same.

Once the X-47 is powered up and ready to taxi (let’s assume the squadron maintainers — the green shirts — perform that function) a taxi director — a yellow shirt — would wander over with CDU in hand.  So instead of directing a pilot at the controls using hand signals, the yellow shirt simply takes control of the drone and taxis it wherever he desires.

Once the X-47 is spotted on the catapult and ready for launch control would go to . . . the Air Boss in the tower? . . . the mission drone pilots located in a ready room? . . . guys with joysticks in the back of an airborne E-2D?

So somebody controls the drone for the duration of the mission, or several operators control the drone for the duration of a mission.  (You can imagine a “black op” where a regular Navy drone driver has to give control to a CIA drone driver for a bit, and once Bad Guy No. 1 is taken out, the regular Navy guy takes control back.) 

But does that same mission control guy land the X-47 back on the carrier?  Let’s assume he or she doesn’t.  And then once the drone successfully traps (will drone drivers hate flying at night as much as human ones do?) then control goes back to the yellow shirt again.  And once in the chocks, the green shirt shuts the unmanned bird down.

Whew.  That’s a lot of coordination.

And when you say “wireless” controller the first thing that comes to mind is electromagnetic interference, trons so strong and numerous that they have been known to inflate aviators’ life preservers while they were manning up.  What lessons will we learn the hard way when we crank up all the ship’s antennas and add a dozen more X-47s to the mix?

Brave new world, indeed.

25 Comments on "Thinking Through the Brave New World of Carrier-Based Drones"

  1. New challenges yes, but certainly not anything unachievable

  2. Aye, brave new world. But worry not, Uncle Sam's finest have a knack for getting sh** done.

  3. "Keeping 25 airplanes from smashing into each other before launch is hard enough with pilots in the loop; what will the absence of them do to the Handler’s pucker factor?"

    That's a funny way to look at things.
    Having 25 human pilots who are some of the most A++ types on the planet and always know what is right is the hard part.
    25 UAVs, which are predictable and don't have egos is easy by comparison. Suspect they will also have an on/off switch.

  4. BAD idea!!!!!!!!!!

    Drone cannot replace the manned fighter. They are not as fast in fighting or quick to think. They cannot be as reliable nor as fast to be recalled in a mission. While it may help in low intensity combat. For real war they cannot do the same as a manned F-18EF!!!!

  5. stephen russell | February 18, 2013 at 8:43 pm | Reply

    See 2005 movie Stealth since it shows manned & drones in combat.
    Used mockup for carrier pics etc.
    Good movie

  6. Drone's will definitely have a place in the Navy, but it will be a long time before they can replace manned pilots. Skilled aviators with excellent warplanes like the Super Hornet are going to be the best for warfare. As for the difficulty of integrating drones into the carrier environment, I'm confident that there's nothing that the U.S. Navy can't handle.

  7. We no buy many only 2 plus test model maybe use now more job later iran stealth fighter mo match this design ok i think now

  8. I thought that this UCAV would assume the job that was lost when we retired our A-6 Intruders. I thought that that was its only purpose.

  9. What some fail to understand is that the vast majority of the operations, from launch to landing, and most of what occurs in between, will be fully automated. This would include manoeuvrings on deck as well except for the fact that there are still manned craft present on the flight deck to contend with. Autonomous operations of vehicles in confined, difficult spaces has been done for some time in Australian shipping ports and New Zealand warehouses. Fully autonomous operations of UAS are also standard practice. Landing at night, in pitch darkness and foul weather, is far easier for an automated system with near instantaneous feedback of multiple sensors. The “pilot” is essentially there for when things go wrong in the vehicle and to oversea the operations when a human decision making process is required. The major issue with UAS, which has been identified for a very long time, is one of data link vulnerability. The US has already experienced this several times and are well aware of it. Hence the natural drive towards full autonomy of such systems. Its basic evolution.

  10. wow, it just looks that awesome!
    nice Picture

  11. What about the brave new world of stealth sea-skimming anti-ship missiles that could send the entire ship and its complement of drones to the bottom? Whither then the superiority of human pilots over such a missile's basic brain?

  12. No problem. Just replace the Handlers, Maintainers, Air Boss, etc…., all the way up to the captain of the ship with specialized handler, air boss and captain drones!

  13. Don't worry Ward, I am sure they will make a compartment in the back to stick the RIO in……. And from what I read the landing is automatic, so no worries with night traps.

    DC2

  14. I think the obvious solution is use manned equipment to move the aircraft while they are on the deck of the carrier, there is no reason they need to be autonomous while on the deck of the carrier. I would think a simple electric tug with a human operator controlling it with an attached controller (i.e, not a big tractor with the operator sitting in or on it, but rather, the operator standing beside it with an attached controller) would work fine, think the 'tugs' you see in the parking lots of grocery stores they use to move grocery carts.

  15. Tribulationtime | February 19, 2013 at 1:14 pm | Reply

    Yes a human can disobey a wrong intruction and thus avoid accidents. A full new way to manage the deck is needed if you want to use drones. Maybe develop differents "windows" of launch given that current drone seems be usefull for attack waves only. I mean i don´t belive UCAVS doing CAPs, Interceptions, scrambles or emergecy "buddy-tanker" sortie. Maybe, Rebuffising decommised Tarawa class (or something like that) for UCAVS squadrons only. My opinion is that the money for drones would be used to "squeeze" F/A-18E/F performance.

  16. The credibility of this site goes to hell when you use the word "drone" to describe a Remotely Piloted Vehicle or Unmanned Vehicle. I realize that's what the Hipsters (not) at Time et al are doing but this is supposed to be an Industry rag.

  17. The worse thing that could happen is that one of these UAV's might launch a missle on deck, striking another aircraft, setting off a series of explosions that might almost sink an aircraft carrier….. On, no, wait…. that was John McCain!

  18. The author should really takes a little bit of time to understand how this aircraft operates, i.e., autonomous vs remotely piloted, before publishing an article like this. That is just plain irresponsible. This clueless author has published a citeable source that is full of inaccuracies. Most of the comments are absurd as well, based on absolute naivety of aircraft CONOPS, performance, mission requirements, and capabilities for either manned or unmanned aircraft.

  19. How much longer will it be till the USAF modifies their global, high endurance drones for low orbit capability? Once achieved, a whole flock of drones could be assigned to numerous 'hot spots' & be 'on tap' in less time than carrier deployment. Does anyone recall the cost of operating a carrier in combat arenas? It's quite expensive daily. Positioning drones in low orbit globally would be a fraction of carrier deployment/operational cost. Who knows………such an eventuality may even antiquate the carrier.

  20. This technology might make sense to politicians and further the interests of corporate executive bonuses, but from a military point of view this is a useless waste of taxpayers's money

  21. Bouncing communications from a carrier to a satellite (or some kind of relay UAV) to the drone will have less latency than using satellite relays from Creech to a drone on the other side of the planet.

    I've not seen much details on how they intend to teleoperate. I assume it would be off the carrier, but…

  22. Black shoe Bosun | February 21, 2013 at 12:31 pm | Reply

    Wow a seven or eight month cruise with no Nasal radiators sounds ok to me!

  23. I just think that cockpit cockpit cockpit cockpit cockpit cockpit.

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