A Northrop Grumman X-47B unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) performed a challenging landing manoeuvre, unlocking a new chapter in naval and military UAV development.
The drone, nicknamed Salty Dog 502, touched down on the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush sailing in the Atlantic, after a flight from the US Patuxent River Naval Air Station in Virginia.
The manoeuvre, considered one of the most challenging in naval aviation, requires the plane to automatically drop a landing hook to catch an arresting cable aboard the ship.
"It's not often that you get a chance to see the future, but that's what we got to do today," said Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, who witnessed the landing and likened it to the first manned aircraft landing on a carrier a century ago.
X-47B’s landing is seen as yet another step towards wider utilisation of UAV’s for reconnaissance and strike operations. With its stealthy bat-wing frame, a 3,200km range and the ability to carry an equivalent of two precision-guided bombs, the X-47B is said to unlock new possibilities in the evolution of UAV technology.
The Salty Dog is one of the only two prototypes of the experimental X-47B aircraft built by Northrop Grumman as a part of a program to test the feasibility of integrating unmanned aircraft into carrier operations.
After performing at least two additional arrested landings, the two X-47Bs will be put on display in aviation museums in Florida and Maryland.
The US Navy is now moving towards the follow-on UNCLASS program that aims to design and built stealthy reconnaissance and strike UAV’s that could to be deployed aboard battle ships in the next three to six years.
Earlier this month, the US Navy’s industrial partners including Northrop, Boeing, Lockheed Martin and General Atomics launched the debate about the exact operational requirements for the future drone.
Although some experts are questioning the need for drones in maritime operations, the US Navy believes the technology can contribute to a major enhancement. With such drones on board, an aircraft carrier could become a crucial tool to face a potential missile attack conducted by China or Iran.
"The idea is you could utilize the UCLASS (carrier drone program) to extend your reach," said Peter Singer, director of the Center for 21st Century Security at the Brookings Institution think tank.
According to the US Navy’s preliminary outline, the UNCLASS drone’s focus should be on long-range reconnaissance capabilities and the possibility of leaving the aircraft stationed aboard the ships for an extended period. The radar-evasion capability could possibly be compromised due to budgetary constraints and the plane is expected to have only limited attack capability.