Navy plans to land pilotless drones on carriers

Within the next four years, Northrop Grumman plans to land an unmanned robotic drone, equipped with precision-guided bombs, on the deck of a Navy aircraft carrier, a revolutionary strategy that company officials say they hope will bring significant changes in naval aviation.

The Navy awarded Northrop a $636 million contract last week to build a pair of the drones -- sleek, pilotless combat planes capable of taking off and landing on a carrier. The Unmanned Combat Air System Demonstration (UCAS-D) program calls for the contractor to demonstrate the jet, the X-47B, by 2011, but does not guarantee the procurement of any additional planes.

"This is a big deal," said Scott Winship, the X-47B program director, at a briefing Wednesday at the National Press Club in Washington. "The day this happens . . . naval aviation . . . changes forever."

The military has used unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for decades, primarily for reconnaissance and surveillance. In the years since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, however, the Pentagon has explored using the drones' advanced technology for combat missions. Such technology was used in missile attacks in Afghanistan shortly after the American invasion, for instance.

The Navy, burned in the 1950s and 1960s by UAVs that failed to live up to potential -- of the 746 drone anti-submarine helicopters built by the service, more than half were lost due to accidents or flight control error -- has been slow to adapt to the technology.

"The Navy's unhappy experience with [the anti-submarine drones] helped to dampen further demand for naval unmanned aerial systems in the surface warfare community for some time," wrote Thomas Ehrhard and Robert Work of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in a May paper. "Perhaps more importantly, it also helped sour the carrier aviation community on unmanned aircraft."

But with the military's increased need to operate at distances far from potential targets, the idea of a combat-ready UAV, able to operate at sea, has become an attractive option for the Navy. "This is a huge leap of faith for a lot of naval aviators," says Tim Beard, Northrop's manager of carrier suitability and integration.

While a typical single-pilot plane is limited to 10 to 12 hours of operation because of the need for pilot rest and refueling, the mission endurance of the X-47B is expected to be at least 50 hours. The additional time would allow the drone to take off further from a potential target and loiter over an area longer than was previously possible. The fixed-wing plane also would be able to fly in weather too unmanageable for a piloted aircraft.

The X-47B would use stealth technology to conduct both surveillance and bombing missions. It would be equipped with weapons bays capable of carrying 12 small-diameter, 250-pound bombs.

The jets would be controlled remotely from the carrier, although the equipment is expected to be portable enough so that it could be packed in a suitcase and operated from other locations.

The first flight is scheduled for late 2009. Additional testing and land-based carrier integration will continue through 2010. The first sea-based carrier landing is expected during the summer of 2011.

The Navy wants to see how well the plane performs during the demonstration before requesting funding for the purchase of more X-47Bs. However, a successful demonstration could set the stage for large-scale production in support of the Naval Aviation Master Plan, which includes plans for an operational Unmanned Combat Air System around 2018.

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
FROM OUR SPONSORS
JOIN THE DISCUSSION
Close [ x ] More from GovExec
 
 

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from GovExec.com.
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Forecasting Cloud's Future

    Conversations with Federal, State, and Local Technology Leaders on Cloud-Driven Digital Transformation

    Download
  • The Big Data Campaign Trail

    With everyone so focused on security following recent breaches at federal, state and local government and education institutions, there has been little emphasis on the need for better operations. This report breaks down some of the biggest operational challenges in IT management and provides insight into how agencies and leaders can successfully solve some of the biggest lingering government IT issues.

    Download
  • Communicating Innovation in Federal Government

    Federal Government spending on ‘obsolete technology’ continues to increase. Supporting the twin pillars of improved digital service delivery for citizens on the one hand, and the increasingly optimized and flexible working practices for federal employees on the other, are neither easy nor inexpensive tasks. This whitepaper explores how federal agencies can leverage the value of existing agency technology assets while offering IT leaders the ability to implement the kind of employee productivity, citizen service improvements and security demanded by federal oversight.

    Download
  • IT Transformation Trends: Flash Storage as a Strategic IT Asset

    MIT Technology Review: Flash Storage As a Strategic IT Asset For the first time in decades, IT leaders now consider all-flash storage as a strategic IT asset. IT has become a new operating model that enables self-service with high performance, density and resiliency. It also offers the self-service agility of the public cloud combined with the security, performance, and cost-effectiveness of a private cloud. Download this MIT Technology Review paper to learn more about how all-flash storage is transforming the data center.

    Download
  • Ongoing Efforts in Veterans Health Care Modernization

    This report discusses the current state of veterans health care

    Download

When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.