The Navy and Northrop Grumman announced Tuesday that they've tested software systems for their X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System aboard a "surrogate" F/A-18D Hornet that launched and landed from an aircraft carrier at sea. Although the Hornet had its crew aboard, officials say the software test helped them prove that it'll be possible for Northrop's pilotless, tail-less, low-observable drone to join the squadrons of human-flown aircraft that now operate from Navy flattops.
Per the Navy's announcement:
The vast majority of today's carrier flight operations are flown manually and visually by Naval Aviators. The pilot gives the ship information about the aircraft over the radio; all air traffic control instructions are by voice and even a good portion of navigation data has to be read over the air by the ship. The purpose of the UCAS-D integration effort is to digitize the communications and navigation information flow to incorporate capabilities required for UAS flight operations aboard a carrier, with minimal impact to existing hardware, training and procedures.So it doesn't sound like the Hornet's pilot, from Air Test and Evaluation Squadron 23, "The Salty Dogs," was able to casually sip coffee and read the paper as this aircraft took off, flew and then trapped aboard. But it does sound as though Navy engineers are satisfied with the software they'll need to communicate with the future UCASes the service is counting on. But there's still a lot more testing to go -- the Navy says it won't try to land an actual UCAS on an actual carrier until 2013.
"This test period shows us very clearly that the carrier segment hardware and software, and the Precision Global Positioning System (PGPS) landing technologies are mature and ready to support actual unmanned operations with the X-47B," said [N-UCAS Program Manager Capt. Jaime] Engdahl.
To support an autonomous vehicle, PMA-268 has modified shipboard equipment so that the UCAS-D X-47B air vehicle, mission operator and ship operators are on the same digital network. For current fleet aircraft, the Landing Signal Officer (LSO), who is charged with safe recovery of aircraft aboard the ship, uses voice commands and visual signals to communicate with a pilot on final approach. Since a UAS cannot reliably respond to voice and visual signals, the LSO's equipment communicates directly with the aircraft through the digital network via a highly reliable interface. Similar digital communication capability has been integrated with the ship's primary flight control ("tower") and Carrier Air Traffic Control Center (CATCC) facilities. Most importantly, the UAS operator's equipment, installed in one of the carrier's ready rooms, is integrated with the very same network.
In addition to communications, an unmanned system requires highly precise and reliable navigation to operate around the ship. This first arrested landing of the F/A-18D surrogate aircraft aboard the Eisenhower was enabled by integrating Precision Global Positioning System (PGPS) capabilities into the ship and the aircraft.