Let's start this post-Thanksgiving week off with a picture that reminds us the era of unmanned strike jets flying off aircraft carriers is fast approaching. Yup, those stealthy looking planes are Northrop Grumman's X-47 Unmanned Combat Air System demonstrator jets. The first one took to the skies in February and the second X-47, dubbed Air Vehicle-2, had its first flight out of Edwards Air Force Base in California on Nov. 22. The plane flew to 5,000 feet and flew in several giant circles near the base before landing.
Now, AV-2 will stay at Edwards while the first jet is going to be shipped to NAS Patuxent River, Md., in the next month or so where the Navy will practice simulated carrier take-offs and landings with the jet. If that testing goes well, the plane will start landing on a real aircraft carrier in 2013, using this technology.
Unlike most current UAVs in service, the X-47 flies autonomously along a pre-progammed route rather than having a pilot control its every movement, as a Northrop Grumman announcement of the second aircraft's flight explains:
The X-47B is a computer-controlled unmanned aircraft system that takes off, flies a preprogrammed mission, and then returns to base – all in response to mouse clicks from a mission operator. The operator actively monitors the X-47B air vehicle's operation using simple situational awareness displays, but does not fly it via remote control, as some unmanned systems are operated.
All of this is meant to pave the way for the Navy's Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike drone; a stealthy, fighter-sized, air-to-air refuelable jet that can carry bombs and ISR gear over fairly heavily defended targets. The Navy wants UCLASS to be operational by 2018, so it's very likely going to be based on jets that are already flying, like the X-47B.
Here's a picture of the second X-47B on its maiden flight.