The U.S. Navy is increasing the rigor of its Unmanned Combat Air System demonstrator aircraft by conducting flight exercises and take-off-and-landing drills aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrier, service officials said.
After successfully landing on an aircraft carrier for the first time this past summer, the UCAS or X47-B air vehicle is now going through a series of technical risk reduction tests as a way to refine and further develop the technology for the service and better establish the concepts of operation, or con-ops, for sailors.
Being able to house and fly an unmanned aircraft system of this kind from an aircraft carrier at sea brings an unprecedented and historic technological accomplishment to the Navy.
“We are introducing a first-ever capability to our carriers,” Rear Adm. Mat Winter, Program Executive Officer, Unmanned Aviation and Strike Weapons, said in an interview with Military.com.
As opposed to the initial flights this past summer which first demonstrated take-off and landing ability for the UCAS, these technical risk tests are designed to assess the air vehicle’s performance and technological integration in more difficult sea conditions, Winter added.
“The UCAS-D is focused on demonstrating the feasibility of operating an aircraft carrier-sized unmanned system in the harsh carrier environment,” he said.
The main goal of this phase of testing is to obtain navigation and air system performance data in more stressful conditions than were experienced previously, according to Capt. Beau Duarte, who manages the Unmanned Carrier Aviation Program Office.
“We’re going to be looking at higher winds and winds of varying directions that will create more dynamic conditions and tower interactions with the carrier," he said. "This will be a little more stressful on the navigation system and the air data system in the vehicle."
Duarte said the assessments are also looking at touch-down and landing points of the air vehicle in relation to planned touch-down point in the landing area right in front of the wires.
Winter explained that the testing is focused on three elements including the air vehicle itself, the digitization of the aircraft carrier needed to operate an unmanned system of the deck and the actual control system. The control system includes the networks, algorithms and software products along with the hardware, transmitters and radios needed to send control signals, Winter said.
“The X-47B program has to continue to mature to understand the dynamic elements of those three segments,” Winter said.
The UCAS is a precursor demonstrator vehicle designed to inform requirements and pave the way for a subsequent program of record called Unmanned Carrier Launched Surveillance and Strike, or UCLASS.
The air vehicle can reach high “subsonic” speed just below Mach 1 and has a flight envelope of up to 40,000 feet, Duarte said. It has an endurance range of approximately 2,000 miles, he said.
As a first-of-its-kind unmanned aircraft system engineered to take-off and land on the deck of an aircraft carrier, the UCAS’ flight success hinges upon interwoven layers of technological coordination.
The technological wiring, displays and control systems of the Nimitz and Ford-class aircraft carriers will be slightly tweaked and updated through what the Navy calls engineering change proposals in order to fully accommodate the UCLASS, Navy officials said.
The UCLASS will give the Navy a long-dwell, persistent intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capability while forward deployed at sea and removes the need to get permission from various host countries to land, fly and operate the aircraft. The idea with having unmanned systems aboard carriers is also grounded in the goal of being able to provide persistent ISR capabilities over longer distances for longer periods of time.
One analyst said the UCLASS program represents an important and needed technological trend.
“This is the obvious next step in technology. Air defenses are becoming more potent and anti-ship missiles are becoming more potent, so the Navy needs to be able to operate further from shore and still be able to strike ground targets,” said Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, a Washington D.C.-based think tank.
Over the summer, the Navy awarded four contracts valued at $15 million for preliminary design review for the UCLASS to Boeing, General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman.
Meanwhile, a draft request for proposals is expected to be released next month for industry to review, followed by a formal notice released during the second quarter of fiscal year 2014. The Navy plans to down-select to a single UCLASS air vehicle in about a year, Duarte said.
Winter said the ability to land and operate an unmanned aircraft system aboard an aircraft carrier represents a substantial technological leap forward. A moving landing surface and fast-changing conditions of the ocean coupled with the wind and electromagnetic environment of a carrier make landing an unmanned system on a carrier such more complicated than a manned aircraft, he explained.
“In a manned aircraft, the ability for control and stability of a vehicle is immediate along with the ability of a pilot to react to those changing conditions. For an unmanned system, that has to be accomplished through a variety of autonomous automatic and deliberate controls so we need to be able to verify and validate those autonomous, automatic and deliberate control strategies,” Winter said.
These challenges are part of why the Navy plans to continue testing UCAS through 2014.
“The best value of our time over this coming year is continuing to understand the command and control algorithms, network connectivity and characteristics required as well as understanding the best way to operate an unmanned system within the digitized carrier,” Duarte said.