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CHIPS Articles: The Unmanned Combat Air System Demonstrator X-47B

The Unmanned Combat Air System Demonstrator X-47B
By Heather Rutherford and the Deputy Chief of Naval Operations for Information Dominance (OPNAV N2/N6) - April-June 2013
Imagine an aircraft that can launch with just the click of a mouse. While that capability has yet to be realized, the Navy is one step closer with the development and testing of the X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System (UCAS) demonstrator X-47B.

The X-47B was born of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Joint Unmanned Combat Air Systems program and developed by Northrup Grumman. The UAV took its first flight in early February 2011 at Edwards Air Force Base in California and completed its first test at sea in December 2012 aboard the USS Harry S. Truman (CVN 75) off the coast of Virginia.

The unmanned aircraft’s specifications are impressive; shaped like a bat, tailless, and bearing a wingspan of 62 feet, the X-47B was designed to be a long-range vehicle that could operate at a ceiling of 40,000 feet at a speed classified as high subsonic — that’s more than 600 miles per hour. The purpose of the X-47 is to demonstrate unmanned air vehicle (UAV) carrier suitability and is only flight cleared for 15,000 feet and 220 knots for testing. There are currently no plans to operationalize X-47B, but the information garnered and the lessons learned will directly transition into the follow-on operational Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) system under development.

“I’m a believer that this is only the beginning,” said Don Blottenberger, deputy program manager for the Navy UCAS Program Office (PMA-268). “We’re taking UCAS-D into next year with what we learned aboard [USS] Truman. We are planning to get it back on a carrier to complete catapult launches, arrested landings and aerial refueling tests. There is a lot ahead for our program and a lot of hard work behind us. I look at Truman as the beginning of future unmanned integration with the fleet.”

The UAV was subjected to a battery of tests that included carrier-based tractors towing the aircraft and taxiing on the flight deck by its arm-mounted control display unit (CDU). Among the most striking results of the testing was X-47B’s performance when exposed to electromagnetic fields. The aircraft withstood electromagnetic and environmental testing in an anechoic chamber, on the ramp and pierside, successfully demonstrating that its command and control links, including the wireless link to the CDU, are effectively protected.

“We proved that the X-47B air system is mature and can perform flawlessly in the most hostile electromagnetic environment on Earth — a Nimitz-class Navy aircraft carrier,” said Mike Mackey, UCAS-D program director for Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems.

Crew members were responsible for directing the X-47B during its stay aboard the Truman. Although X-47B is nearly 17 feet wider than the Navy’s F/A-18 Super Hornet, which has a wingspan of almost 45 feet, the crew was able to comfortably maneuver the aircraft on the flight deck and into the hangar bays.

As with guiding a traditional aircraft aboard a carrier, the flight deck director used standard hand signals and issued instructions to the deck controller. The major difference? The deck controller carried out the flight director’s commands using a wireless handheld control. The exercises demonstrated the ability to maneuver the strike-fightersized aircraft quickly and precisely on the flight deck.

“I believe our Sailors integrated with the system very easily,” said Lt. Cmdr. Larry Tarver, Truman’s aircraft handling officer. “Getting Sailors to help out and participate was very easy as everyone was curious and excited to work with it. Apart from those minor differences, the aircraft moved much like any other carrier-based aircraft while taxiing under its own power.”

While X-47B itself is a prototype and will not become a permanent fixture in the fleet, similar aircraft may someday be found aboard ships.

“There are a lot of people aboard Truman that will take this experience with them,” Blottenberger said. “I think that all of this interest will help different programs both manned and unmanned. Hopefully, its impact will benefit future technologies.”

What’s next for X-47B? According to Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert, the UAV will conduct catapult operations this spring. “I would submit to you we’re going to get all wound up when we see this thing … I’m pretty excited about it,” he said.

ATLANTIC OCEAN (Dec. 11, 2012) An X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System (UCAS) demonstrator aircraft is transported on an aircraft elevator aboard the aircraft carrier Harry S. Truman (CVN 75). U.S. Navy photo courtesy of Northrop Grumman
by Alan Radecki.
ATLANTIC OCEAN (Dec. 11, 2012) An X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System (UCAS) demonstrator aircraft is transported on an aircraft elevator aboard the aircraft carrier Harry S. Truman (CVN 75). U.S. Navy photo courtesy of Northrop Grumman by Alan Radecki.

ATLANTIC OCEAN (Dec. 13, 2012) An X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System (UCAS) demonstrator aircraft is transported on an aircraft elevator aboard the aircraft carrier Harry S. Truman (CVN 75). U.S. Navy photo courtesy of Northrop Grumman by Alan Radecki.
ATLANTIC OCEAN (Dec. 13, 2012) An X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System (UCAS) demonstrator aircraft is transported on an aircraft elevator aboard the aircraft carrier Harry S. Truman (CVN 75). U.S. Navy photo courtesy of Northrop Grumman by Alan Radecki.
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