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NAPLES, Italy -- An experimental drone that could change the future of naval aviation has survived its first round of testing aboard an aircraft carrier, Navy officials say.
The X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System went through a series of mechanical and engineering tests designed to evaluate its compatibility with the Navy's aircraft carriers during a two-week stint aboard the nuclear powered USS Harry S. Truman.
"I'm a believer that this is only the beginning," Don Blottenberger, program manager for the Navy's unmanned aircraft program, said in a statement. "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."
Similar aircraft could eventually be used to deliver cargo to ships at sea, carry out airstrikes and conduct surveillance, according to Navy officials.
The development of unmanned aircraft has taken up an increasing amount of Department of Defense dollars in recent years, despite budget cuts. The Army, Air Force, Marines and Navy all use unmanned aircraft or are developing them, according to a report published earlier this year by the Congressional Research Service. In all, the Pentagon's unmanned aircraft inventory increased from 167 in 2002 to nearly 7,500 in 2010, according to the report.
The aircraft "are expected to take on every type of mission currently flown by manned aircraft," Jeremiah Gertler, a military aviation specialist, wrote in the report.
During the testing exercise aboard the Truman, sailors towed the X-47B across the flight deck using carrier-based tractors and tested how its digital engine controls reacted to electromagnetic fields, according to the Navy. Sailors also taxied the drone on the flight deck using a joystick attached to a remote control.
"The system has performed outstandingly," Blottenberger said, according to the statement. "We've learned a lot about the environment that we're in and how compatible the aircraft is with a carrier's flight deck, hangar bays and communication systems."
Digital messages, instead of verbal instructions, from shipboard controllers are used to control the aircraft.
"We followed the aircraft director's signals to move the aircraft left or right, over the arresting wire, to and from the catapults and to various spotting positions," said Gerrit Everson, one of the operators who controlled the X-47B aboard the Truman, in a statement. "These tests proved that we can taxi the X-47B with the precision that an aircraft carrier's flight deck requires."
Navy officials plan to land and launch the drone from sea in early 2013 in what would be the first unmanned aircraft flight from a carrier. Its success could launch a new class of automated, unmanned naval planes.
The X-47B made its first test flight in February 2011 at Edwards Air Force Base in California. It completed its first land-based catapult launch from Naval Air Station Patuxent River in Maryland in late November. It was then shipped to Norfolk, Va., where a crane moved it onto the Truman.
"Nobody has ever done this before," said Lt. Cmdr. Larry Tarver, Truman's aircraft handling officer, said in a statement. "Unmanned aerial vehicles have flown all over the world, but an X-47B has never operated on an aircraft carrier."
The drone, developed by Northrop Grumman, a Virginia-based aerospace contractor, has a 62-foot wingspan and is 38 feet long. It's slightly smaller than the aircraft now used aboard Navy aircraft carriers and its wingtips fold, allowing for easier storage, according to the Navy.
After leaving the Truman, it will undergo further testing at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Navy officials said.
"We are planning to get it back on a carrier to complete catapult launches, arrested landings and aerial refueling tests," Blottenberger said.