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Navy Tests X-47B on Another Carrier

by Kris Osborn on November 11, 2013

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The U.S. Navy is increasing the rigor of its Unmanned Combat Air System demonstrator aircraft by conducting flight exercises and  take-off-and-landing drills aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrier, service officials said.

After successfully landing on an aircraft carrier for the first time this past summer, the UCAS or X47-B air vehicle is now going through a series of technical risk reduction tests as a way to refine and further develop the technology for the service and better establish the concepts of operation, or con-ops, for sailors.

Being able to house and fly an unmanned aircraft system of this kind from an aircraft carrier at sea brings an unprecedented and historic technological accomplishment to the Navy.

“We are introducing a first-ever capability to our carriers,” Rear Adm. Mat Winter, Program Executive Officer, Unmanned Aviation and Strike Weapons, said in an interview with Military​.com.

As opposed to the initial flights this past summer which first demonstrated take-off and landing ability for the UCAS, these technical risk tests are designed to assess the air vehicle’s performance and technological integration in more difficult sea conditions, Winter added.

“The UCAS-D is focused on demonstrating the feasibility of operating an aircraft carrier-sized unmanned system in the harsh carrier environment,” he said.

The main goal of this phase of testing is to obtain navigation and air system performance data in more stressful conditions than were experienced previously, according to Capt. Beau Duarte, who manages the Unmanned Carrier Aviation Program Office.

“We’re going to be looking at higher winds and winds of varying directions that will create more dynamic conditions and tower interactions with the carrier,” he said. “This will be a little more stressful on the navigation system and the air data system in the vehicle.”

Duarte said the assessments are also looking at touch-down and landing points of the air vehicle in relation to planned touch-down point in the landing area right in front of the wires.

Winter explained that the testing is focused on three elements including the air vehicle itself, the digitization of the aircraft carrier needed to operate an unmanned system of the deck and the actual control system. The control system includes the networks, algorithms and software products along with the hardware, transmitters and radios needed to send control signals, Winter said.

“The X-47B program has to continue to mature to understand the dynamic elements of those three segments,” Winter said.

The UCAS is a precursor demonstrator vehicle designed to inform requirements and pave the way for a subsequent program of record called Unmanned Carrier Launched Surveillance and Strike, or UCLASS.

The air vehicle can reach high “subsonic” speed just below Mach 1 and has a flight envelope of up to 40,000 feet, Duarte said. It has an endurance range of approximately 2,000 miles, he said.

As a first-of-its-kind unmanned aircraft system engineered to take-off and land on the deck of an aircraft carrier, the UCAS’ flight success hinges upon interwoven layers of technological coordination.

The technological wiring, displays and control systems of the Nimitz and Ford-class aircraft carriers will be slightly tweaked and updated through what the Navy calls engineering change proposals in order to fully accommodate the UCLASS, Navy officials said.

The UCLASS will give the Navy a long-dwell, persistent intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capability while forward deployed at sea and removes the need to get permission from various host countries to land, fly and operate the aircraft. The idea with having unmanned systems aboard carriers is also grounded in the goal of being able to provide persistent ISR capabilities over longer distances for longer periods of time.

One analyst said the UCLASS program represents an important and needed technological trend.

“This is the obvious next step in technology. Air defenses are becoming more potent and anti-ship missiles are becoming more potent, so the Navy needs to be able to operate further from shore and still be able to strike ground targets,” said Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, a Washington D.C.-based think tank.

Over the summer, the Navy awarded four contracts valued at $15 million for preliminary design review for the UCLASS to Boeing, General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman.

Meanwhile, a draft request for proposals is expected to be released next month for industry to review, followed by a formal notice released during the second quarter of fiscal year 2014. The Navy plans to down-select to a single UCLASS air vehicle in about a year, Duarte said.

Winter said the ability to land and operate an unmanned aircraft system aboard an aircraft carrier represents a substantial technological leap forward. A moving landing surface and fast-changing conditions of the ocean coupled with the wind and electromagnetic environment of a carrier make landing an unmanned system on a carrier such more complicated than a manned aircraft, he explained.

“In a manned aircraft, the ability for control and stability of a vehicle is immediate along with the ability of a pilot to react to those changing conditions. For an unmanned system, that has to be accomplished through a variety of autonomous automatic and deliberate controls so we need to be able to verify and validate those autonomous, automatic and deliberate control strategies,” Winter said.

These challenges are part of why the Navy plans to continue testing UCAS through 2014.

“The best value of our time over this coming year is continuing to understand the command and control algorithms, network connectivity and characteristics required as well as understanding the best way to operate an unmanned system within the digitized carrier,” Duarte said.

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{ 41 comments… read them below or add one }

Hunter76 November 11, 2013 at 9:49 am

This is the foreseeable future of airpower. Not F-35s nor supercarriers. Mass-produced drones. If you can land on a carrier, you land in a hole on a ship.

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Lance November 11, 2013 at 1:54 pm

Yeah that's whats the brass wants. If we went to war with a power who fights for its air space like Russia even Iran we attack with drones we will get our butt kicked.

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Rest Pal November 11, 2013 at 5:12 pm

The military industrial complex can't care less about shredded butts and body bags. The important thing is to get more orders for planes and drones at exorbitant prices. If you protest, you are a terrorist.

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octopusmagnificens November 11, 2013 at 2:17 pm

Hypersonic drones.

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Rest Pal November 11, 2013 at 5:37 pm

the US is decades away from being able to field a true combat drone. And that's ignoring the coming economic collapse.

don't let the pipe dream get out of hand.

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LPF November 11, 2013 at 10:19 am

Drones are ok, until some works out how to jam their control signals. They are OK against third world countries, its what happens when your up against first world enemies that the real test , will happen.

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CharleyA November 11, 2013 at 11:09 am

This is not an RPV. It is autonomous, meaning it does not net "control signals" from some off board source.

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twomuch2luz November 12, 2013 at 8:57 am

oh, yes it does get remote control….watch the take off and landings . it also needs to know the ships location and movement…a carrier does not stand still.

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JCross November 12, 2013 at 9:55 pm

It's being controlled for current landings largely to prove a drone can do it all, and to gain data for the software. Most of the time it flies autonomous, even including complex tasks such as midair refueling. Before it takes off, onboard nav will be loaded with projected path of the carrier, if no carrier is there, then it will have to get a new download or find it itself. Carriers are not stealth in any manner whatsoever, and all else fails, it should be able to find it with it's own sensors.

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fanboy November 11, 2013 at 3:28 pm

air-to-air missiles, bombs, satellites, cruis missiles… all rely heavily on control signals. if you can jam UAVs, what's to stop you from jamming those?

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RRGED November 11, 2013 at 10:36 am

GREAT NEWS on this VETERANS DAY!

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Hunter76 November 11, 2013 at 11:11 am

The "tricks" to drones are autonomy, thin communications, and line-of-sight. Autonomy means you get out of the business of hand-steering these things– you give it the mission; it carries it out. Thin communications means you only involve yourself when mission changes become an issue. Line-of-sight communication is hard to jam.

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PolicyWonk November 11, 2013 at 12:15 pm

Considering the range of this beast is 2000 miles, mission changes are likely to be something of a challenge when up against a serious adversary.

Current UAV's are using satellite links, which have been very successful against 3rd world nations without advanced weaponry. Changing the mission of a UCAV if/when satellite are removed via ASAT weapons some potential adversaries have will prove challenging.

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Buford November 11, 2013 at 7:57 pm

No problem – line of sight. We have Sats that are armed to the T.

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Big-B November 12, 2013 at 5:18 am

Armed Sats that can defend themselfs vs. ASAT weapons? Your source?

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blight_ November 14, 2013 at 8:53 am

Not sure; but it wouldn't surprise me if it were true (and in violation of the OST, which the Soviets willfully violated).

Our best defense will be the ability to rapidly re-launch satellites, or have hardware to harden a satellite against attack. For a satellite using a CCD, an armored shutter or filter to protect the sensor from burning out would be a plus.

NathanS November 13, 2013 at 8:39 pm

If it were a manned plane (instead of a UAV), how would you issue a change of orders to it (if the satellites were knocked out)? Both have the same means of communication available to it.

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rtsy November 11, 2013 at 4:14 pm

I'm still much more interested in what kind of submersible ROVs DARPA is cooking up to launch off of carriers.

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Boo LaBoue November 11, 2013 at 6:51 pm

With high-speed nuclear-powered attack subs, why bother with surface ships? Launch the cruise missiles from the attack boats while the boomers continue to cruise and observe. The lads and lasses in Las Vegas can fly all the RC drones you want, just like they do now. Surface ships are big highly visible targets. Park them all.

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hibeam November 11, 2013 at 8:02 pm

Nice work. Keep the software out of the hands of the Chinese and others.

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Bernard November 11, 2013 at 8:52 pm
diptotroopsdeployed November 12, 2013 at 1:48 am

Hooah. – Dip To Troops Deployed

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Big-Dean November 12, 2013 at 2:01 am

This thing will be ready for war even before the code is sorted out for the F-35

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William_C1 November 12, 2013 at 4:45 am

You do realize a fully combat operational one of these will probably need nice the amount of code the F-35 has, right?

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Hunter76 November 12, 2013 at 9:31 am

Which part?

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oblatt1 November 12, 2013 at 10:54 am

Yea but if you dont let Lockheed built it thats still 10 times fewer bugs than the F-35.

Oh sorry not "bugs" I meant "revenue generation points" as you like to say in Lockheed.

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Curt November 12, 2013 at 2:01 pm

How is this passable. The X-47B has an even shorter MLG to tail hook distance than the F-35C? And the exact same presentation that indicated the F-35C would never be able to trap because of its "unprecedented" MLG to tail hook distance (well admittedly that is only unprecedented if you assume all tactical aircraft started at the. F-14 and totally ignore the F-8, A-7, A-4, T-2, F9F, etc.) predicted the X-47B would suffer the same fate?

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FYI November 12, 2013 at 5:03 pm

You mean what do they already have? Based on my time in the Military and the technology we were working with vs. what they actually had was like night and day. There were some systems I worked with that are not public knowledge to this day, 20 years later.

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Shannon November 12, 2013 at 7:13 pm

EMP will render all this newfangled crap to the junk pile.

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JCross November 12, 2013 at 9:50 pm

It's no more or less vulnerable than any other plane outside of possibly the F-35. (Which has said to have compromised on EM shielding to save weight). EMPs are mostly an issue for civilian hardware, military hardware tends to have EM shielding.

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tmb2 November 12, 2013 at 9:54 pm

Newfangled like everything built after 1950? Manned fighters would suffer the same fate as an unmanned plane if exposed to an EMP.

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Michael Cox November 13, 2013 at 10:17 am

Operator fatigue and G-Force limits will be a thing of the past.

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harleybidness November 13, 2013 at 8:02 pm

Neighbors … history tells us that the Admirals and Generals prepare the fight the last war EXCEPT when referring to the US Armed Forces. It's not perfect, as lots of ideas didn't work out. But, the process for selecting future weapons begins with analysis of future needs. Again … not perfect, but the rest of the world tries to copy our process and copy our results. We need all of the weapons systems under development and in use today. The X-47B is a new system that can do some things, and do them better than manned systems. But, artificial intelligence will always be artificial and human intelligence will always be superior. I dearly love those "Terminator" movies. Machines will be able to kill humans. But, machines will never replace humans. thanks, your neighbor, HarleyBidness

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bobp2v November 13, 2013 at 10:28 pm

Some really good thoughts here. All this can happen if there is a budget to cover it.

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A7S4EVR November 14, 2013 at 8:07 am

What, you don't think the scientists at DARPA consider worst-case scenarios, such as theater tactical EMP nukes? EMP-hardened electronics have been a fact of life for decades. Besides, if a flash sensor detects an EMP burst, it could be programmed to shut down all electronics instantaneously, and "wake up" moments later. EMP doesn't linger.

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blight_ November 14, 2013 at 8:46 am

Demonstrators don't need to be hardened to those levels, nor should they be.

FYI, you meant "engineers at Northrop"; who when given a contract to build actual machines for combat use, will design everything custom, use as little as possible off-the-shelf and make us wait long-time for product.

Unless they learned a painful lesson from the ATB fiasco, which affected their ability to compete in fighter and bombers ever since…

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Rest Pal November 18, 2013 at 12:01 am

quote: – "if a flash sensor detects an EMP burst, it could be programmed to shut down all electronics instantaneously …"

——

What Physics class did you attend in high school or college that makes you think this is possible?

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Charles Carter November 14, 2013 at 8:09 am

I wonder if they could use a laser system like smart bombs used to land the X- 40 7B on the flight deck.

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blight_ November 14, 2013 at 8:44 am

Laser might not work as well as you think when you have to land in the rain, or exceptionally high humidity.

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Bill November 14, 2013 at 12:24 pm

More waste of taxpayers dollars. Do away with the Navy except for the Nuclear
Subs and put them under the AF or army.r

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blight_ November 14, 2013 at 8:51 am

And in air superiority, the telemetry requirements are much less. You don't need high-def full-motion-video. You can probably transmit a low-resolution video and highlight targets in viz, along with radar and maybe IRST information. You could even eschew video itself, use onboard DSP to identify candidate blips on radar, IRST and viz and transmit those only, reducing bandwidth requirements further.

I'm hoping one of these days CAS UAV's will use data compression techniques to reduce satellite overhead. When loitering on station, DSP to track only /changes/ to the environment, and transmit those changes back to the operator. Or combine with GMTI, and use that to detect motion, and priortize transmission of just that area, versus sending a high-def image 10-60 times a second back to base. Or even a technique to "skip" low priority areas every few frames and interleave with the previous transmission of the low priority area.

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