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Drone Aborts Fourth Carrier Landing Attempt

by Brendan McGarry on July 16, 2013


A type of experimental U.S. Navy drone that became the first unmanned jet to land aboard a moving aircraft carrier failed in a fourth and final attempt to accomplish the feat.

The X-47B made by Northrop Grumman Corp. yesterday experienced unspecified technical issues while in flight and officials decided to abort the mission before the aircraft made it to the ship, according to an article by Christopher Cavas, a reporter for Defense News who broke the story, citing unnamed sources within the service.

Navy officials later confirmed to Military​.com that the plane — which has the call sign “Salty Dog 501″ and was not the same one that performed last week’s landings — was instructed to forgo the landing aboard the USS George H.W. Bush in the Atlantic Ocean.

“During the flight, the aircraft experienced a minor test instrumentation issue” and returned to Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Md., where it landed safely, Jamie Cosgrove, a spokeswoman for the service, said in an e-mailed statement. “There were no additional opportunities for testing,” as the ship returned to port today, she said.

The other X-47B, known as “Salty Dog 502,” on July 10 completed two landings and takeoffs aboard the carrier about 70 miles off the coast of Virginia Beach, Va., in what officials heralded as the future of naval aviation. A third touchdown planned for that day was aborted after one of the aircraft’s navigational computers failed.

The two aircraft are highly autonomous. The computer-controlled unmanned systems take off, fly pre-programmed routes and land in response to mouse clicks from a mission operator, according to Northrop.

The shipboard exercises are the culmination of a development program called the Unmanned Combat Air System Demonstrator, or UCAS-D, which has cost about $1.4 billion over eight years.

“The X-47B aircraft and the entire carrier system passed with flying colors,” Capt. Jaime Engdahl, who manages the program for the Navy, said in the statement.

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.

Navy Secretary Ray Mabus after the drone’s successful carrier landings penned an op-ed in which he argued that the demonstration proved how the nuclear-powered fleet will remain relevant for decades to come.

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{ 37 comments… read them below or add one }

JohnB July 16, 2013 at 2:54 pm

Is this autonomous or remote control ?


tmb2 July 16, 2013 at 5:38 pm

Mostly autonomous. It taxis with an operator, but take off, flight, and landing are automated (with someone keeping tabs on it).


steve July 18, 2013 at 9:10 am

Both ,
its partially Autonomous ,but is able to receive remote commands


Musson July 16, 2013 at 3:08 pm

It took four attempts but the AI brain finally came to it's senses –


Ron July 16, 2013 at 3:38 pm

Need some more fine tweaking!


BlackOwl18E July 16, 2013 at 5:04 pm

Drone revolution = totally over played.

Manned tactical aviation = still completely relevant for the future.

Is it any coincidence that 2019 is also the same date that the F-35C was supposed to reach IOC? That's when he wants the UCLASS drones? Sounds suspicious to me…


Blue July 17, 2013 at 4:06 pm

Never miss an opportunity to bash the F-35, do you?

Give up. The F-35 program isn't going to be canceled. F-35s WILL be part of the US military for decades to come.


stpaulchuck July 17, 2013 at 8:55 pm

yep, they'll make good target practice for the chicoms


MNButler July 18, 2013 at 12:27 am

Yeap, Just like the F-111.


William_C1 July 18, 2013 at 1:36 am

I'm not certain what you're trying to say about the F-111, but it did excellent service as our premier tactical strike/interdiction aircraft for decades. The Navy's F-111B would have worked as the Phoenix missile truck it was designed to be, but the Navy recognized that they needed something that was a true fighter.


eric July 18, 2013 at 3:00 am

thank god, or I would have flown Aardvarks instead of F-14Ds…

BlackOwl18E July 18, 2013 at 9:55 am

I was literally on the verge of giving up, but then I went back to some old Defensetech articles and I saw that someone had gone back and deleted my old posts, possibly an administrator. The fact that they went back to get rid of them has not only rekindled my desire to fight the F-35 again, but it also showed me that this program is still sensitive to someone at least. Also, from what I gather the F-22 program was once just as strong as this was, but it died eventually when senators and congressmen came together and realized that we couldn't afford it. Also, keep in mind that I don't much care at all for the F-35A or the F-35B. The USAF and the USMC can have those two for all I care. What I really want cancelled is just the F-35C. It's not better for the needs of the Navy than an upgraded Super Hornet with advanced anti-radar missiles and it costs nearly three times as much. The cost to fix the problems with the F-35C are also ridiculously high. I think the F-35C is the most vulnerable and it still has a chance of getting killed even if the F-35 program as a whole is strongly politically protected.


blight_ July 18, 2013 at 9:59 am

Lame. Did they delete your IntenseDebate posts or your pre-IntenseDebate posts?


BlackOwl18E July 18, 2013 at 10:33 am

It's weird. They were all IntenseDebate posts, but in some cases they deleted the entire post or a portion of the thread and in others they deleted just my responses to other people posts. They were all about the JSF vs Super Hornet debates though. I go back and look at them occasionally to see how I could make my arguments better and now they are gone, which means that I'm coming back in action this time.

majr0d July 16, 2013 at 5:14 pm

"The shipboard exercises are the culmination of a development program called the Unmanned Combat Air System Demonstrator, or UCAS-D, which has cost about $1.4 billion over eight years."

So each of the two X47B's have $700mil sunk into them and so far are 50% on landing on a carrier.

I'm a fan of drones. We need to continue development but those pointing to this as evidence of the relevancy of the CSG or radical progress are drinking the snake oil. We need carriers and drones but the face of naval aviation warfare hasn't dramatically changed nor will it for the near future.


Azrael630 July 17, 2013 at 9:25 am

This isn't a 50% failure of the drones. Like the space shuttle and most other aircraft, the drone has multiple nav computers. If one fails it has backups. This is the testing period and so no chances are taken. Can you imagine the nobrain press if this thing had crashed due to engine trouble and it was found that a nav system was also weak? It's Bush's fault!

The other was a failure in some of the test equipment that actually isn't even part of the aircraft. The entire military is risk adverse today. I flew on the early AC-130 gunships and they were definitely NOT risk adverse back then. Today they wouldn't have been allowed off the ground.


majr0d July 17, 2013 at 1:55 pm

The drones have made two of four attempts at landing, 50%. Yep, it's the testing phase but we don't have the same understanding attitude towards missile defense or the F35.

I'm not against drones but the out of control cheerleading is a bit over the top. This is the 3rd or 4th article in a row on the X47B and has the least enthusiastic comments. Check out the others.

Drones are great. We should pursue the technology but the belief by some that drones are cheaper or will be doing the most difficult/important missions or make up the majority of aviation in the next decade or so are buying the snake oil so many defense industry sales reps and technophiles sell.

Agree the military is extremely risk averse (just like the country and politicians). Risk aversity has become a strategic weakness and the primary driver for many weapon systems e.g. JLTV & GCV.


William_C1 July 18, 2013 at 1:38 am

It seems we have jumped from being too risky (FCS Manned Ground Vehicle program) to being too risk averse (GCV).


blight_ July 18, 2013 at 1:49 pm

Different types of risk; unless I misread what you meant.

Did you mean FCS was risky in terms of too many gizmos? Or perhaps if FCS didn't deliver a sufficiently armored and armed product to fight the enemy?

And for GCV, I'm sure you meant that GCV was skewed towards heavy and between 60 and 80 tons for an IFV…but it too also had a fair number of doodads.

killerccrawford July 18, 2013 at 5:30 am

I've seen the Angel of Death AC-130A and I have 3,500 hrs on A model slicks. You gunships guys regularly took off overgrossed and did a lot of other stuff too crazy to contemplate.


tiger July 17, 2013 at 3:50 pm
majr0d July 18, 2013 at 12:42 pm

Using that logic the F35 program at over $300 bil and lifetime costs topping a trillion must make it the best aviation weapon ever.

It's dangerous to assume the check writers know what they are doing.

I still support the program but your logic leaves a lot to be desired.


USS ENTERPRISE July 16, 2013 at 6:13 pm

"Minor" problems. I like Northrop Grumman, and the X-47B, but if a problem is minor, and happens during wartime, how can you abort the landing? If its minor, than should it not effect landing?


tchump July 17, 2013 at 12:44 pm

If it's minor and wartime, they proceed.

If it's minor and it's peactime *and* it's a tech demo in the very earliest phases of research and development of this new capability, they take the safest possible option and study the problem to reduce the chances of it happening in wartime.


tiger July 17, 2013 at 3:38 pm

Pilot get wave offs everyday. Nothing new.


hibeam July 17, 2013 at 11:14 am

Just wait until they unionize. They will land when they damn well please.


ms6 July 17, 2013 at 5:04 pm

Keep our current stock of drones for close ground support and scrap the rest of this automated ship borne nonsense.


hibeam July 17, 2013 at 5:16 pm

ms6 permission to come aboard sir. Your left frontal lobe seems to be taking on water.


Beef Supreme July 18, 2013 at 4:16 am

Top Gun 2: A toy robot becomes a carrier drone.


SFC Pappy July 18, 2013 at 7:05 pm
SFC Pappy July 18, 2013 at 7:26 pm
SFC Pappy July 18, 2013 at 7:29 pm
SFC Pappy July 18, 2013 at 8:18 pm

A UAV is a needed piece of equipment in the Navy. Surveillance? OK. Refueling? OK. Transporting supplies? OK.

I’ve been flown on and off of a carrier. Piloted by a human being on said aircraft. I trusted them to do their job.

But some black shoe in Washington will get the bright idea of using them as COD’s for transportation of people onto and off of a carrier. No fracking way will I let a desk jockey sitting on ship fly me onto an aircraft carrier. Either its flown by a pilot IN the aircraft with as much to lose as I do or I’ll wait on the pier.

What are these UAV pilots (snort) going to do in high seas or bad weather?? Can’t fly seat of your pants from an office chair. A carrier certified pilot is irreplaceable when it comes to pucker factor flying. These electronic landing aids don’t do everything to make successful fowl weather or heavy seas flying.

I see a great future for the flight deck fire brigade in aircraft crash firefighting.

Humans are priceless. But carrier pilots don’t crash that often. But at how many million each for a UAV can these RC pilots crash before the Navy says enough?


blight_ July 18, 2013 at 8:16 pm

We can't even replace the COD aircraft that we have!

That said, the eventual goal of UAVs in my mind is to have a naval aviator in a room on the CV guide the aircraft in for the landing. Aircraft autopilots on INS/GPS to within radio range of a relay aircraft and is landed by teleoperation from the relay or the carrier itself.

That said, a transport ferrying replacement pilots will have the manpower aboard to fly if required. If the weight of teleoperation gear can be reduced enough, it may be possible to have aircraft that can be manned or unmanned; and thus use unmanned COD aircraft from a base to move aircraft engines and mail and have your pilots move other, more interesting things. This assumes that availability of pilots for COD aircraft is the bottleneck, and not aircraft availability.


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blight_ July 18, 2013 at 9:59 am

If a navalized Aardvark had stuck around for 30,40 years it would not have been that bad either…


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