The U.S. Navy conducted flight testing of the X47B Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle (UCAV) from the flight deck of the USS George H.W. Bush, while it was under way in the Atlantic, in mid-July 2013. The X47B accomplished catapult take-offs, touch and go landings, and arrested landings (utilizing a tail hook). Navy officials indicated this is the start of a new era which will redefine naval aviation for the next fifty years. Nicknamed the Salty Dog 502 by the Navy, this UCAV does not require an airborne nor, a land based pilot to complete a mission. Extinction of the need for combat pilot looks inevitable.
The X47B is a tailless, combat, drone, stealth jet which resembles a miniature version of a B-2 stealth bomber. Some of the data on this UCAV is as follows:
*Manufactured by – Northrop Grumman Corp.
*Power Plant – one Pratt and Whitney F100-220U turbo fan engine
*Cruising Speed – Mach 0.9+
*Width (Wing span) – 62.1 feet (18.9 m)
*Width (Wings folded) – 30.9 feet (9.4 m)
*Length – 38.2 feet (11.6 m)
*Height – 10.4 feet (3.2 m)
*Height (wings folded) – 17.3 feet (5.3 m)
*Unrefueled range – 2,400 miles (3862 km)
*Computer Automated – Take-off, Landing, and aerial refueling
*Weapon Payload Capacity – 4,500 pounds (2041 Kg)
*Maximum Mission Length – 30 to 50 hours
The X47B was engineered to complete a combat sortie almost entirely controlled by computers. A human pilot programs the mission and the flight plan. The computer program takes over and guides the UCAV from the ship to the target and back. The landing is a rather difficult dance of digital communications back and forth between the aircraft and the aircraft carrier’s guidance system. The carrier constantly sends the X47B pinpoint GPS co-ordinances, the ship’s speed, crosswind information, and other data. The drone interprets the data received and makes adjustments. It drops its tail hook for the arrested landing. The tail hook catches the three wires and decelerates the drone from 145 knots (167 mph) to zero in 350 feet (106.7 m).
Whether one realizes it or not, these tests by the Navy surpassed huge milestones in ‘drone technology programming.’ It is the culmination of over eight years of research and development.
The U.S. Navy is thrilled with the results of the test flights. They will be extending the testing through the year 2015. The final two tests will be deployment tests with the last being the most important. In the final test, the X47B will be fully integrated into a carrier Air Wing, for several weeks. The purpose of this test is to demonstrate that a UCAV can work seamlessly with manned aircraft in carrier operations.
Not only does the Navy have an interest in the UCAV, but the U.S. Air Force does as well especially in the land based version. Both branches of the Armed Forces have pointed out that combat drones will eliminate dependence on limited pilot endurance, pilot boredom on lengthy missions, and the pilots need to consume food and water, among a laundry list of other items. It does make one wonder if the need for combat pilots is on the same path as the dinosaur was – Extinction!!