ABOARD USS GEORGE H.W. BUSH, United States (AFP) – A U.S. Navy drone successfully touched down on the deck of an aircraft carrier on Wednesday, in a historic first for robotic flight.
The bat-winged X-47B floated down to the USS George H.W. Bush at reduced speed and then caught an arresting wire on its tail hook, bringing it to a textbook-perfect stop, as reporters and top brass watched.
“You saw the future today,” Navy Secretary Ray Mabus told journalists afterward.
The experimental plane had taken off about an hour earlier from the Patuxent River naval air station in Maryland before arriving at the carrier off the Virginia coast at about 1:40pm local time.
Naval pilots require years of training to learn how to land a fighter jet on a carrier deck at sea, and even experienced aviators say touching down on a moving ship — especially at night — is a daunting challenge.
But Wednesday’s unprecedented landing by an unmanned plane showed that sophisticated computer software could perform the same task, guiding a robotic aircraft onto the deck of a ship at sea.
The touch down by the unmanned plane, dubbed “salty dog” by the Navy, came 102 years since the first arrested landing of an aircraft on a U.S. carrier.
Rear Admiral Mat Winter, head of the Navy’s unmanned aviation program, called it an event for the “history books,” but said the successful outcome came as no surprise after years of meticulous testing.
“What you saw today was a major visual demonstration, but we’ve been demonstrating and achieving technology maturation in the laboratory, in the models and the simulations,” Winter said.
“We knew we were going to touch down x number of inches past the second wire, the hook was going to bounce x number of feet and that the hook was going to engage the third [wire],” he said.
The X-47B drone had already successfully taken off from a carrier in a catapult launch on May 14, and after its arrested landing on Wednesday, the plane took off from the deck in a graceful thrust upward.
The X-47B is controlled remotely but has more autonomy than older drones such as the Reaper and Predator, and does not require constant step-by-step direction.
The Navy envisages the tailless plane playing a central role in all air wings aboard carriers, which currently rely on manned fighter jets and helicopters.
The X-47B, which is about 38 feet long with a wingspan of 62 feet, can reach subsonic speeds and fly at an altitude of more than 40,000 feet.
Unlike the Predator, which is slower and has a more limited range of 675 nautical miles, the X-47B can fly 2,100 nautical miles before refueling, allowing it to potentially carry out long-range bombing raids.
The experimental prototype, which looks like a smaller version of the B-2 bomber, was developed by aerospace giant Northrop Grumman at a cost of about $1.4 billion.