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New drone has no pilot anywhere, so who's accountable?

The Navy is testing an autonomous plane that will land on an aircraft carrier. The prospect of heavily armed aircraft screaming through the skies without direct human control is unnerving to many.

January 26, 2012|By W.J. Hennigan, Los Angeles Times

"Increasingly humans will no longer be 'in the loop' but rather 'on the loop' — monitoring the execution of certain decisions," the report said. "Authorizing a machine to make lethal combat decisions is contingent upon political and military leaders resolving legal and ethical questions."

Peter W. Singer, author of "Wired for War," a book about robotic warfare, said automated military targeting systems are under development. But before autonomous aerial drones are sent on seek-and-destroy missions, he said, the military must first prove that it can pull off simpler tasks, such as refueling and reconnaissance missions.

That's where the X-47B comes in.

"Like it or not, autonomy is the future," Singer said. "The X-47 is one of many programs that aim to perfect the technology."

The X-47B is an experimental jet — that's what the X stands for — and is designed to demonstrate new technology, such as automated takeoffs, landings and refueling. The drone also has a fully capable weapons bay with a payload capacity of 4,500 pounds, but the Navy said it has no plans to arm it.

The Navy is now testing two of the aircraft, which were built behind razor-wire fences at Northrop Grumman Corp.'s expansive complex in Palmdale, where the company manufactured the B-2 stealth bomber.

Funded under a $635.8-million contract awarded by the Navy in 2007, the X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System Carrier Demonstration program has grown in cost to an estimated $813 million.

Last February, the first X-47B had its maiden flight from Edwards Air Force Base, where it continued testing until last month when it was carried from the Mojave Desert to Naval Air Station Patuxent River in southern Maryland. It is there that the next stage of the demonstration program begins.

The drone is slated to first land on a carrier by 2013, relying on pinpoint GPS coordinates and advanced avionics. The carrier's computers digitally transmit the carrier's speed, cross-winds and other data to the drone as it approaches from miles away.

The X-47B will not only land itself, but will also know what kind of weapons it is carrying, when and where it needs to refuel with an aerial tanker, and whether there's a nearby threat, said Carl Johnson, Northrop's X-47B program manager. "It will do its own math and decide what it should do next."

william.hennigan@latimes.com

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