The U.S. Navy for the first time launched a drone from an aircraft carrier in what officials hailed as a historic milestone in naval aviation.
The batwing-shaped craft, known as the X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System, or UCAS, on May 14 was catapulted 11:18 a.m. local time from the deck of the USS George H.W. Bush in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Virginia Beach, Va., according to the service.
The drone, made by Northrop Grumman Corp., was controlled by an operator aboard the ship but flew largely autonomously. After multiple approaches to the nuclear-powered carrier, it crossed the Chesapeake Bay and landed at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Md., about an hour later. (The vehicle is set to attempt a landing aboard a carrier at sea this summer after completing a shore-based arrested landing earlier this month.)
“USNavy history is made!” the Navy said in a message on its official Twitter account. “Was airborne at 11:18A. More to come.” The service later released video of the launch.
Vice Adm. David Buss, commander of Naval Air Forces, in a release called it a “watershed event” and drew comparisons to pilot Eugene Ely’s first-ever landing of a plane on the deck of a ship in 1911.
The flight marks “an inflection point in history on how we will integrate manned and unmanned aircraft on carrier flight decks in the future,” Rear Adm. Mat Winter wrote in a post on the Navy’s official blog beforehand.
The mission showed that the craft – which is about the size of an F/A-18 Super Hornet – can be flown within controlled airspace above a carrier, the Navy said in the statement. It also proved that control of the vehicle could be passed from an operator on a ship to one on land, it said. Prior to launch, the team also conducted deck-handling and ship-integration tests.
The technology is designed to extend the range of a carrier group. The X-47B can fly about twice as far as a manned F-35C fighter jet.
Northrop has built two aircraft for the UCAS program, which has cost $1.8 billion to date. It’s designed to demonstrate the technology and inform a larger effort to build the Navy’s armed, carrier-based drone fleet called Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike, or UCLASS.
The service has said it plans to request proposals for a preliminary design review for the UCLASS program this month, followed by a similar request for technology development next month.
Northrop is expected to square off against other defense giants for the work, including Lockheed Martin Corp., Boeing Co. and General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc. Lockheed is pitching the Sea Ghost, Boeing the Phantom Ray and General Atomics the Sea Avenger.