September 12, 2011
This summer the X-47B unmanned combat aircraft made its first arrested landing on the USS Eisenhower. Well, actually it was an F/A-18D Hornet (left) operating as a surrogate, using the software and avionics of the X-47B. And a pilot was in the cockpit, or, in Navy parlance, “in the loop.” Off-camera and well off-ship, a less glamorous King Air fitted with the same control system set down smoothly on a land-based runway.
Both landings brought the Navy a step closer to meeting its mission goal of an “autonomous, low-observable, relevant unmanned aircraft.” The surrogate tests pose lower risk than landing a real X-47B without prior sea trials, and at far lower cost.
Today’s carrier approaches are flown manually by a pilot using visual cues and a radio dispatch, usually sent from the Landing Signal Officer (LSO) on deck. Most of the information is relayed by voice, the rest by handheld flags, which can introduce both delay and errors. The purpose of the UCAS-D (Unmanned Combat Air System-Demonstration) program is to digitize all communications and navigation data, while minimizing the new hardware and training requirements for the awkward human component.
Both the aircraft and the ship’s control tower will use GPS navigation. Eventually the carrier’s LSO will fold up his flags and transmit all instructions via a digital network integrated with the primary flight control tower on deck. Digital control will also reach the ship’s ready room below, which may have no pilots in the traditional sense.