For the first time in naval aviation history, a drone was catapulted off the deck of an aircraft carrier and soared into flight.
The U.S. Navy conducted the test Tuesday from aircraft carrier George H.W. Bush off the Virginia coast with its X-47B experimental drone.
It’s a key milestone in the progression of drone technology and the program, which has been eight years in the making.
“Today we saw a small but significant pixel in the future picture of our Navy as we begin integration of unmanned systems into arguably the most complex war-fighting environment that exists today: the flight deck of a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier,” Vice Adm. David Buss, commander of Naval Air Forces, said in a statement.
The bat-winged X-47B executed several maneuvers designed to simulate tasks that the aircraft would have to perform when it lands on a ship. Then, the Navy said it safely transited across Chesapeake Bay to land at Naval Air Station Patuxent River in Maryland after an approximately 65-minute flight.
The X-47B, built by Northrop Grumman Corp., is designed to land on the deck of an aircraft carrier, one of aviation’s most difficult maneuvers, but that was not part of Tuesday’s test.
The drone is autonomous, marking a paradigm shift in warfare. Currently, combat drones are controlled remotely by a human pilot. But the X-47B is designed to carry out a combat mission controlled entirely by a computer. A human pilot would design its flight path and send it on its way; a computer program would guide it from a ship to target and back.
What also sets the drone apart from most of today’s combat drones is that it is stealthy and jet-powered.
The X-47B, which resembles a miniature B-2 stealth bomber, has a 62-foot wingspan and can fly to an altitude of more than 40,000 feet. It has a range of more than 2,400 miles and can reach high subsonic speeds.
The drone is designed to fly farther and stay in the air longer than existing aircraft because it does not depend on a human pilot’s endurance. Navy fighter pilots may fly missions that last up to 10 hours. Current drones can fly for three times that long.