For the first time, the U.S. Navy has catapulted the bat-winged X-47B drone into flight.
The test conducted Thursday wasn’t at sea, but rather at a shore-based catapult facility at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Md.
It marks the first of several shore-based catapult-to-flight tests that will be performed before the sleek drone, called the X-47B, is launched from a ship.
The X-47B, built by Northrop Grumman Corp., is designed to perform one of aviation's most difficult maneuvers: land on the deck of an aircraft carrier. What's even more remarkable is that it will do that not only without a pilot in the cockpit, but without a pilot at all.
"Today's successful launch is another critical milestone in the carrier-suitability testing phase" of the program, Mike Mackey, Northrop Grumman's X-47B program director, said in a statement.
After the catapult launch, the X-47B conducted a test flight over Chesapeake Bay, which included several maneuvers designed to simulate tasks that the aircraft will have to perform when it lands on a ship, the company said.
Over the next few weeks, the Navy expects to conduct several shore-based catapults at Patuxent River. On Monday, an X-47B was hoisted aboard the Harry S. Truman aircraft carrier at Naval Air Station, Norfolk, Va., to begin a series of deck handling trials.
The Navy has said it expects the X-47B 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.
Currently, combat drones are controlled remotely by a human pilot. The X-47B could carry out a combat mission controlled entirely by a computer. A human pilot designs a flight path and sends it on its way and a computer program guides it from a ship to target and back.
The X-47B 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.
There were two X-47Bs built under a $635.8-million contract awarded by the Navy in 2007. They were constructed behind barbed-wire fences and double security doors at Northrop Grumman Corp.'s expansive facility in Palmdale.
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.