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Drone Glitch Nixed Last Carrier Landing: Navy

by Brendan McGarry on July 11, 2013


The experimental U.S. Navy drone that became the first unmanned jet to land aboard a moving aircraft carrier was told to abort the third and final attempt after one of its navigational computers failed, officials said.

The bat-winged aircraft, known as the X-47B and made by Northrop Grumman Corp., completed two touchdowns and takeoffs yesterday aboard the USS George H.W. Bush about 70 miles off the coast of Virginia Beach, Va., in what officials heralded as the future of naval aviation.

On the third approach, the drone reported that one of its three navigational computers failed, so the human operator instructed the craft to fly to a runway at Wallops Island, Va., according to Rear Adm. Mat Winter, the service’s program executive officer for unmanned aviation and strike weapons.

“On every test, we have some type of anomalous behavior,” Winter said today during a conference call with reporters. “X-47B did everything it was designed to do.”

The incident occurred about two minutes prior to the last planned landing as the aircraft approached the ship, according to Capt. Jaime Engdahl, who manages the Navy’s Unmanned Combat Air System Demonstrator, or UCAS-D, program.

“We saw an issue with one of the precision navigation computers and decided that we had done enough for the day and then flew the aircraft back,” Engdahl said during the call.

“Landing aboard an aircraft carrier is extremely demanding,” he added. “The accuracy, the integrity, the reliability that you need is critical to the safety of the aircraft and the fact that we’re landing on a ship in close proximity to flight deck personnel and other aircraft.”

Officials are reviewing the data to determine what happened to the navigational computer, according to Carl Johnson, a vice president at Falls Church, Va.-based Northrop who manages the program for the company.

“It’s probably a minor issue that when we reset the computers, everything will be up and running and you’ll have a fully functioning aircraft,” he said during the call.

The prototype that flew the mission, which has the call sign “Salty Dog 502,” is one of two Northrop built for the Navy. The aircraft will return to Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Md., after final testing aboard the ship is completed on Monday, Winter said. They will eventually be retired to a museum.

The development program has cost about $1.4 billion over eight years, according to the Navy.

The effort was designed to demonstrate the technology’s potential and pave the way for a larger program, called Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike, or UCLASS, to build an armed, carrier-based drone fleet.

The Navy wants to add operational drones to air wings in 2019 to extend the range of carrier groups. Unmanned aircraft can stay aloft for more than a day — far longer than manned planes. The systems will be initially used for surveillance and refueling missions, and eventually for strike operations, officials said.

The Navy plans to issue a draft request for proposals for the first phase of the UCLASS program in August, followed by a formal request to start the competition next year, Winter said. The service would pick a single winner by the end of 2014, he said.

Northrop Grumman 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 Martin is pitching the Sea Ghost, Boeing the Phantom Ray, and General Atomics the Sea Avenger.

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{ 35 comments… read them below or add one }

Lance July 11, 2013 at 7:16 pm

So after all the press and hype. This drone has still yet to be perfected.


Ben July 11, 2013 at 7:42 pm

Lance, you take the cake for idiocy on this one.

If all the DoD's programs ran this smoothly we'd be living in a Star Trek movie right now.


Joseph D. July 11, 2013 at 9:28 pm
Joseph D. July 11, 2013 at 9:29 pm
Joseph D. July 11, 2013 at 9:29 pm
majr0d July 12, 2013 at 12:26 am

Ben, he owns the bakery


Ronnie July 12, 2013 at 4:20 am

Spot on Ben. Nice to see a grown up keeping the kids in check. Bring his bed time forward by half an hour.


STemplar July 11, 2013 at 10:58 pm

Yes, the imperfect drone self diagnosed and reported to its handlers a potential landing problem preventing danger to the carrier and then followed orders for an alternative landing. What a piece of junk……?


tchump July 11, 2013 at 11:05 pm

This. I for one am glad to see the abort system has been tested successfully under live conditions.


tmb2 July 11, 2013 at 11:26 pm

Where has anyone said the X-47 was perfect? 2 out of 3 successful landings for the first time ever is pretty damn good. The missile defense program would kill to have as good of a testing record as the X-47 program.


Jerome July 12, 2013 at 11:24 am
YourNameHere July 12, 2013 at 1:18 pm

They should have called you for input. But on second thought, what's the point? Your comment sounds like you read the headline, formed a judgement, and decided to troll. Given the redundancy of computers onboard, the IT team seems to have done a good job so far. But it seems like if they called you, that's what would have been the real failure.


Brian Black July 12, 2013 at 5:51 am

Considering the difference that this programme can make to the USN's strike capability, it is remarkably cheap.


Tony C. July 12, 2013 at 6:40 am

Considering the negative G's imparted on the drones systems in the previous 2 landings, it only had one failure. The US Navy doesn't really let the public know that the operational aircraft always have carrier landing induced system failures. The fact that the drone flew to a bingo field indicates that it could have made the carrier landing, but was diverted for safety. The pilots always have a big pucker factor with carrier landings and the drone performed it perfectly. The software is now mature enough to take the next step towards an operational drone.


tmb2 July 12, 2013 at 1:33 pm

For all we know the plane could have still landed with that error (1 of 3 navigation computers failed), but they didn't risk it. They even got an unplanned (and successful) test of the emergency systems. It looks like they were able to hand the plane off to an operator without any major bumps which is also critical. I wonder if they plan on any operator-guided landings in the future?


hibeam July 12, 2013 at 9:17 am

The software will only get better and better over time. Every drone is top gun all day every day Go Navy!


rty July 13, 2013 at 7:42 am

Top gun? No one said anything about dogfighting or flying real sorties in war time. This tech can land on a carrier under perfect conditions two times out of three, it's still ten years and hundreds of billions of dollars away from fulfilling the promise of unmanned combat drones doing all the dirty work.


hunter76 July 12, 2013 at 9:50 am

Sometime in the future, drones will eat F-35s out of the sky. Meanwhile F35s gobble potential drone R&D dollars.


blight_ July 12, 2013 at 10:38 am

Depends on if drones can detect F-35 and hit it with missiles that can detect the target.


hibeam July 12, 2013 at 1:22 pm

The F-35 will need to pull 12+ Gs in order to escape. That won't be a problem will it?


USS ENTERPRISE July 12, 2013 at 10:49 am

Uhm. This X-47B and the F-35 are on the same side.


blight_ July 12, 2013 at 9:55 am


UAV lands flawlessly.

UAV lands flawlessly.

Computer thinks there may be a problem, operator waves it off to land instead of risking a kaboom on the flight deck.


Is there a problem?

Compare to Wright Brothers, and this is after *numerous* glider experiments.

Wilbur: 3s flight, crash
Orville: 120 ft, 12s flight
W:175 ft
O:200 ft
W: 852 ft, land with damage

//damaged again by heavy gust


USS ENTERPRISE July 12, 2013 at 10:50 am

Yeah, but to be fair, they had no funding from the government.


EW3 July 12, 2013 at 1:36 pm

The government funded effort led by Langley faired far worse then the Wrights.


blight_ July 12, 2013 at 3:56 pm

Probably because Langley was an astronomer. In the absence of actual aeronautical field; even ship designers would understand more than the guy who invented the bolometer.


Old commander July 12, 2013 at 10:10 am

Anyone who has seen thousands of carrier landings in day & night, foul and fair, would realize this is quite a feat! This plane has fabulous potential, be patient.


BlackOwl18E July 12, 2013 at 10:54 am

EDI is acting up. We need to put him on lock down so he doesn't carry out Operation: Caviar Sweep.


hibeam July 12, 2013 at 12:38 pm

The CiC campaigned in all 57 states. Can we call it the X-57B to honor that achievment?


fanboy July 12, 2013 at 12:41 pm

X-47b: 2.5
F-35: 0


wpnexp July 14, 2013 at 1:44 am

Carrier landings sure, as the Navy hasn't been pressing for the F-35 to do a carrier landing. But, really, what else has the X-47B done besides fly as a drone. How many Gs can it pull. Has it done 45 degree high angle of attack? Has it fired AMRAAMs? Are 64 flying? Does it have an AESA radar, EOTS, DAS? Can it land vertically? This is a drone designed to do one thing – to demonstrate launch and landing of a drone on a carrier. An amazing acheivement, but not even close to being on par with the F-35.


oblatt1 July 14, 2013 at 11:12 am

Your imaginary F-35 isnt even close to par with the real one.

The real F-35 dosen't have a AESA radar yet, cant land on carriers yet has never launched a guided AMRAAM, cant pull more that 4Gs cant put 64 aircraft into the air doesn't have a functioning EOTS or DAS.


spurlockda July 12, 2013 at 6:13 pm

I wonder if the software was MS Windows. After booting up two times, you have to press Cntl/Alt/Delete to get the computers running again.

Just teasing. This is an outstanding accomplishment and it will be really intriguing to watch develop.


Big-Dean July 13, 2013 at 1:37 pm

Let's all pray that they don't award the program to Lockhead-they will surely screw it up, make it cost $6 Billion a piece and it'll take 20 years


Ed Greene July 16, 2013 at 10:24 pm

Did the drone request a fly by of the tower? If so you know Maverick was to blame.


Jolly Roger July 18, 2013 at 2:52 pm

I can buy a $200-$400 unmanned plane, helicopter, concept aerials that do the same thing. imagine the savings to tax payers. If the military just goes to hobby shops. lightweight, mobile, unmanned, cheaper by billions (plural). &, they are available now. no contracts, wasted billions. take a risk and KISS (KEEP IT SIMPLE STUPID).
You see how many millions are wasted on uniform decisions? Tired of someone responsible @ the topm, taking credit for innovations that cost millions upon millions, a simple decision on how to dress for a certain terrain. So, all services wear that same uniform for that particular terrain. notice the key words being ALL Services. Guess what I'm providing this decision, free of charge, it makes sense, practical, common sense, operational usage. & I offer it free of charge.
The hobby shop did not have to reinvent the wheel. plans/aircraft fly by computers(auto pilot) themselves, imagine that, the Common sense factor.


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