Inside The Navy’s Historic Embrace Of At-Sea Combat Drones

The X-47B, which successfully launched from the USS George H.W. Bush, is an autonomous, algorithm- and-GPS controlled drone designed to test unmanned naval warfare.

The next generation of military drones are here, and they’re controlled by algorithms and designed for sea combat. On May 14, the U.S. Navy successfully launched the experimental X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System from the USS George H.W. Bush and landed the drone at a naval air base in Maryland. When complete, the X-47B will be able to both take off and land on the same aircraft carrier–which, if successful, will change naval warfare forever and possibly spark a UAV arms race between the United States and China.


The X-47B is an unmanned, unarmed, fully autonomous demonstration system designed by Northrop Grumman as a proof-of-concept vehicle for drones in naval warfare. Today’s launch was the first time a UAV was publicly launched via catapult on an aircraft carrier; the vehicle flew approximately 65 minutes to Naval Air Station Patuxent River from the USS George H.W. Bush, which was in Chesapeake Bay. Before flying to the air base, the X-47B executed several planned low approaches to the aircraft carrier. This was done in preparation for the culmination of the UAV’s testing, which will include both taking off and landing on the aircraft carrier.

The drone, which is the size of a piloted fighter aircraft, is designed to share the same flight deck as conventional manned aircraft. Both the Navy and Northrop Grumman are hoping that the X-47B will operate smoothly and require minimal adjustment to naval combat operations. The United States Navy has been vocal about integrating UAVs into their at-sea aircraft mix by the 2020s.

But unlike conventional UAVs, there’s something different about the X-47B. The X-47B isn’t only unmanned… it’s autonomous, too. The drone is descended from DARPA’s Joint Unmanned Combat Air Systems (J-UCAS) program, which created UAV control systems that depend entirely on algorithms, sensors, and computer code. Although the X-47B still requires occasional human input, it operates mostly autonomously along pre-programmed flight routes. Humans only override the X-47B’s programming if anomalies happen.

Wired‘s Spencer Ackerman, who attended the George H.W. Bush launch, wrote that “The drone–which has its own callsign, ‘Salty Dog 502’–turned downwind and passed over the ship twice, first from 1000 feet overhead and then from 60 feet overhead, before flying back to dry land in Maryland. The launch went exactly as the Navy hoped. With that, the era of the drone took a major step toward patrolling the skies above the world’s waterways. It’s something the Navy hopes will have big implications for supplementing manned fighter jets in a carrier air wing, providing both persistent surveillance far out at sea and ultimately firing weapons in highly defended airspace that might mean death for human pilots.”

However, the Navy has not yet announced the date of the land-on-the-aircraft-carrier test or confirmed that they will let media cover the event–the launch from the George H.W. Bush was heavily attended by print, digital, and broadcast media. This could indicate that the hardest part of the equation–landing the X-47B at sea–still faces potential problems.

In the long term, the Navy wants to expand the use of autonomous drones. A new partnership between the Office of Naval Research and Lockheed Martin is planning to develop autonomous launch and landing technology for the Navy’s UAV fleet.


[Images: U.S. Navy]