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US Navy unveils pilotless drone strike fighter

Monday, August 13, 2012 by: J. D. Heyes
Tags: US Navy, strike drone fighter, military pilots

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(NaturalNews) It's a concept that is anathema to most of today's military pilots: Fighter planes without a human being at the helm.

Yet, that's the next generation of strike fighters that are going to be produced by the United States, according to a number of analysts. In fact, the Navy already has its own version making test flights.

The X-47B, manufactured by Northrup Grumman, was unveiled by Navy officials this month as a pilotless, remote-controlled weapons platform that will ultimately be flying missions from the decks of American carriers. Officially known as the Unmanned Combat Air System, the drone-like strike fighter is currently undergoing flight tests at the Patuxent River Naval Air Station in Maryland. Eventually, officials say, the platform will carry weapons, though none are being placed on board the current test model.

According to the manufacturer, the X-47B will make its first carrier landings.

"Under a contract awarded in 2007, the company designed, produced and is currently flight testing two X-47B aircraft. In 2013, these aircraft will be used to demonstrate the first carrier-based launches and recoveries by an autonomous, low-observable-relevant unmanned aircraft," Northrup Grumman said, adding that the aircraft will undergo aerial refueling testing the following year, in 2014.

More testing on the horizon

The aircraft program has steadily matured. The X-47B's first successful test flight occurred Feb. 4, 2011, which consisted of a short flight of just 29 minutes, to a ceiling of 5,000 feet. Since then, follow-up testing has improved on the craft's capabilities and has demonstrated its potential.

In some of the latest flight tests that took place earlier this year, the aircraft climbed to 15,000 feet and undertook "multiple maneuvers that are essential for using an aircraft carrier as its base of operations including extending and retracting a tail hook needed to catch the carrier's arresting wires upon landing and 'touch-and-go" landings," Forbes reported.

Officials said part of the carrier tests would include so-called "bolter" runs, in which the tail hook fails to catch on the carrier deck and it must immediately take off again. The craft will also undergo wave-offs, in which the operator will have to abort a landing.

The Navy said the goal of the X-47B program is to provide the military with an "unmanned air system capable of providing persistent, penetrating surveillance, and penetrating strike capability in high threat areas." The aerial refueling element means the aircraft could stay aloft for extended periods, perhaps even taking on several pre-programmed missions, so long as conditions remained favorable and its weapons lasted.

Also, it's tailless design and special composite body makes the X-47B harder for radar to detect, adding a stealth element that will prove vital in covert operations especially.

More than just military applications?

What's more, the capability could expand into other aircraft markets.

"Even more exciting than the X-47B is the technology to fly aircraft with a laptop and a click of the mouse instead of a joystick and human pilot," said a report in Discovery News.

Such technology exists even for cargo and commercial aircraft, experts say, but right now, the risk is too great.

"You could build one. The question is: Would you be allowed to operate it?" John Hansford, director of the Center for International Air Transportation and a professor of aerospace engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told the Web site.

"We already have the technology to take an existing commercial-scale airplane -- say an Airbus 320 or Boeing 777 -- and convert it to unmanned operations," he said. "However, it's not clear yet that you could guarantee the safety of that to a level that would be acceptable for general public transport. If it has a problem, then it becomes a hazard to people on the ground."





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