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Navy Preps Drone for First Carrier Landing

by Brendan McGarry on May 15, 2013

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The U.S. Navy plans to fly the drone that was the first unmanned jet to take off from an aircraft carrier on a series of tests that will culminate in its first-ever landing aboard a ship this summer, an official said.

The batwing-shaped craft, known as the X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System, or UCAS, with the call sign “Salty Dog 502,” made history on May 14 when it was catapulted 11:18 a.m. local time from the deck of the USS George H.W. Bush in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Virginia Beach, Va., according to the service.

The Navy this week plans to fly the drone back to the ship from Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Md., for tests in which it will approach, touch down on the deck and take off without stopping in a maneuver known as “touch-and-go,” according to Navy Capt. Jaime Engdahl, manager of the UCAS program. The tests will continue in June in preparation of landing the Northrop Grumman Corp.-made jet aboard a carrier “later this summer,” he said.

“This is an inflection point in naval aviation and it allows us to prove conclusively that large unmanned systems can work from the deck of aircraft carriers and it shows that we have a unique capability to develop future systems to increase the effectiveness and the range of the carrier battle group,” Engdahl said May 15 during a conference call.

The X-47B earlier this month made its first ground-based arrested landing, in which the tail of the plane captures a cable on the runway to quickly slow the aircraft as it lands. The Navy in coming weeks plans to conduct additional arrested landings on the ground, as well as the touch-down flights on the carrier.

Northrop, based in Falls Church, Va., has built two aircraft for the UCAS program, which has cost $1.4 billion over eight years. Each plane is about the size of an F/A-18 Super Hornet fighter jet.

Engdahl praised yesterday’s take-off and flight of the aircraft, which he said “performed perfectly in all phases of flight.” He also warned that the upcoming tests are equally complex.

“The most technologically demanding and significant portion is actually touching down on a moving flight deck and then continuing to roll down the center line of the runway on the carrier while the aircraft and the carrier are pitching and rolling,” he said.

Northrop has made significant strides in developing the autonomous vehicle for use aboard aircraft carriers, according to Carl Johnson, a vice president and manager of the UCAS program at the company.

“As we found throughout the program, there are exceptions to every rule and you need to prepare for them,” he said during the call. “The start point of the flight and the end point of the flight move. That is a new development in terms of unmanned systems. The significance for us and the flight yesterday is that once launched, the system has to go find its route. It has to compensate itself for not going where it’s initially starting. That is a big problem to solve.”

The UCAS program is designed to demonstrate the technology and lay the groundwork for a larger effort to build the Navy’s armed, carrier-based drone fleet called Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike, or UCLASS.

The service has said it plans to request proposals for a preliminary design review for the UCLASS program this month, followed by a similar request for technology development next month.

Northrop is expected to square off against other defense giants for the work, including Lockheed Martin Corp., Boeing Co. and General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc. Lockheed is pitching the Sea Ghost, Boeing the Phantom Ray and General Atomics the Sea Avenger.

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